It was very heartening to see the wheels of democracy churning on Friday, with the Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunications holding a public hearing on the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB). Several organisations were represented at the hearing, myself representing TEPF. The entire committee, including the IT minister, were present to hear what civil society and industry had to contribute. One major stakeholder missing from the process was the print and electronic media.

True, the hearing was conducted upon demands of the civil society and industry organisations, and insistence of opposition members in the committee, especially Shazia Marri of the PPP and Syed Ali Raza Abidi of the MQM, to hear out the public’s concerns. But it is still very encouraging that the ruling party representatives in the committee acceded to a more inclusive process. What this experience highlights however, is that the process of legislation should always be inclusive and consultative such that there are minimal flaws in the body of laws passed by the legislature. Also important is that such hearings are widely publicized and genuine stakeholders invited and consulted. Of paramount importance though is that the ruling party members of the national assembly attend these hearings as well or attend corner meetings of the Joint Action Committee to gain a deeper understanding of the issues involved. Particularly useful would be the ear of the Information, Broadcasting and Law minister Pervaiz Rasheed. This bill is, in some ways, more connected with his ministry than the IT ministry. One organization conspicuous by its absence was the Pakistan Telecoms Authority, the regulator of all things telecommunications and Internet.

The consultative process on the PECB is not complete and looks set to become an iterative one till consensus is reached on the bill before presentation to assembly for a vote. The organizations that had come together in the Joint Action Committee (JAC) and submitted comments to the standing committee were ISPAK, P@SHA, HRCP, PFUJ, RWB, Bolo Bhi, DRF, B4A, MMfD, IRAADA and TEPF. Unfortunately, however, all were not invited to the hearing. It is hoped that the next hearing will be inclusive of other organisations as well.

The JAC is now in the process of consolidating all comments for the ease of the standing committee, and it is vital that organisations such as the HRCP and PFUJ also have their concerns included in the comments. DRF, for example, highlighted privacy related issues in the bill; TEPF highlighted areas like incitement to violence, child pornography, blackmail etc. that are not addressed by the bill, the low bar for law enforcement to obtain powerful warrants, the risk to right of the citizens to circumvent surveillance or blocking of the internet; P@ASHA highlighted the risk to smothering young people’s creativity and entrepreneurial activity; Mr. Murtaza Solangi, as an independent journalist, stressed the need to protect investigative journalism by criminalizing ‘unauthorised access to information’. The diversity of concerns was striking and useful. Hence, the more stakeholders that come on board at this stage, the better.

One instructive comment was that of a representative of the FIA. They would like to preserve the clause requiring all ‘premises’ that host a wifi for example, to retain people’s data for a year, to help trace criminals who have used hotspots of internet cafes etc. MMfD pointed out that this would include all offices, government buildings, universities etc. and was impractical and Orwellian. The IT minister, Anusha Rehman, gave an excellent response saying that whilst the world moved to open net practices, we could not and should not move in the opposite direction and was lauded by everyone. However, the FIA’s concerns remain. But perhaps the solution is quite simple. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are already required by PTA to maintain all traffic data for a year, and the FIA can obtain it from there when needed, after obtaining the necessary warrants. Another PMLN standing committee member, Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar, was also very receptive and keen to find solutions that would satisfy both law enforcement needs and human rights concerns. Chairman of the standing committee, Captain Safdar, himself commented on the definition of ‘offence’ in the bill which can have a child as young as seven years old prosecuted.

But such understanding on part of the ruling party is only possible if they read and discuss the bill with stakeholders even if they are not members of the standing committee. After all, they will be voting on it when it is presented on the floor of the house, and a keen understanding of the bill will prove most helpful. Indeed, it is now the responsibility of the ruling party to take an initiative on the issue and listen to stakeholders’ issues in preparation for voting on the bill.

All in all, it was a pleasure to see an inclusive exercise of democracy working in practice – the process needs to go on, and applied widely to other legislation being considered by the house of representative of this country.

 The writer is a human rights worker  and freelance columnist.