Activists Warn about Pakistan’s Controversial Cyber-Crime Bill Could Hurt Freedom of Speech

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A cyber-crime bill passed by Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament last week is too vague, said activists, warning it could be used to restrict the freedom of speech in the South Asian nation.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill–created by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government last year to combat terrorism online as well as electronic harassment and other forms of cyber crime–has too broad a definition of what is punishable and gives authorities too much power to prosecute and censor, rights groups and opposition politicians said.

It requires Internet service providers to retain a record of traffic data for more than a year and gives officials the power to seize equipment and gather private data without warrants in some cases. The criminal offenses listed in the bill can be punished with fines and imprisonment.
In a provision some critics are calling a blank check for censorship, the bill says the government will have the right to block access to information “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof.” The bill also says the government can restrict access to information to promote “friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.”

In December, a group of rights organizations said the bill posed “a grave risk to freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and of access to information in Pakistan.”
The government incorporated some suggested amendments from the opposition into the bill before it was passed on Wednesday, but critics said it could still be abused by authorities.

“Ideally, we’d like to scrap this version [of the bill] and go back to square one,” said Farieha Aziz, director of Bolo Bhi, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for privacy and digital rights.

Members of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the largest opposition party, said they will try to keep the law from passing in the upper house of Parliament. The PPP has the largest number of seats in the upper house so the bill may have trouble passing and becoming law in its current form, analysts said.

Government officials said Pakistan needs new legislation to deal with new types of electronic crimes, especially the use of the Internet and mobile communications by terrorist groups. They said the law is also needed to deal with identity theft, child abuse, harassment and blackmail online.

Sagheer Wattoo, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information Technology, which drafted the law, said concerns about the law were unfounded as it provided enough checks and balances to protect citizens’ rights as well as the need for court approval and warrants for most investigations.

“An offense will have to be determined by the court before anyone takes action,” Mr. Wattoo said.
Source:http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2016/04/18/pakistans-controversial-cyber-crime-bill-could-hurt-freedom-of-speech-activists-warn/

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