Questions of free speech are being raised after Pakistan's lower house of parliament passed a cybercrime bill despite widespread opposition from civil rights activists and some members of parliament.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 (PECB) was hurriedly passed in the National Assembly with only 30 of the 342 members present on Thursday.

The move comes during a week in which parliamentary debates were primarily focused on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's family being named in the Panama Papers.

The bill is aimed at preventing online harassment, cyber stalking and blackmailing and seeks to criminalise those involved in these offences, according to Anusha Rahman, junior minister for information technology and communication. 

Rahman had said last year that "some aspects of online networking [sic] needed attention after the implementation of the National Action Plan", referring to the country's counterterrorism plan also known as NAP, which was launched in 2015 following the attack on a school in Peshawar.

However, activists argue that the scope of the bill goes beyond involvement in electronic fraud or promoting terrorism and is rather ambiguous in its definition of the crimes.

“The average internet user in Pakistan is not aware of online sensitivities and perils of the digital age," Shahzad Ahmad, country director of IT-focused human rights organisation Bytes for All, told Al Jazeera.


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"Youth form a major percentage of internet users and they can fall into a lot of trouble for exercising what they believe is their right to free speech should the the bill be passed into law."

While agreeing on the need for cyber laws in Pakistan, Ahmad termed the bill "not pro-people" and "a recipe for disaster for millions of netizens in the country".

Before the bill is made into a law, it has to pass through the Senate, or the upper house of the parliament, where the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) commands a majority.

Some of the senators have openly criticised sections of the bill. One of them, Shazia Marri, has submitted a note of dissent on the bill to the National Assembly standing committee and its chairman.

'Bill has huge gaps' 

The cybercrime bill calls for imprisonment of up to five years, a fine of PKR10m ($95,000) or both for hate speech, or trying to create disputes and spread hatred on the basis of religion or sectarianism.

According to Bolo Bhi, an internet freedom and privacy rights nongovernmental organisation (NGO) based in Islamabad, the offence would "stifle debate on what the law should or should not criminalise as well as the application of the criminal law in individual cases".

Ahmad argued that the bill, which he said the government "sneaked in under the umbrella of the NAP", should not solely be considered a national security necessity and must focus on the citizens’ socioeconomic wellbeing and sustainable development.


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"In its current form, the bill has huge gaps that can be abused and misused against any segment of society including businesses, activists, academia or individual users," he said.

"Vague terminologies, especially in the presence of draconian laws such as the Pakistan Protection Act and the blasphemy law, can play havoc with the lives and livelihoods of people. Criminalisation of freedom of expression and free speech is the worst aspect of it."

The bill also criminalises acts such as spamming via text messages or email and cyber-stalking, as well as production and distribution of encryption tools, whether they are used by individuals for protecting their privacy or by organisations for safeguarding sensitive information.

Spamming or "sending messages irritating to others or for marketing purposes" can result in a fine of up to PKR50,000 ($4,775) and "if the crime is repeated, the punishment would be three months' imprisonment and a fine of up to PKR1m ($9,500)".

Some other key recommendations of the bill, which activists say are ambiguous in their ambit, include imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of PKR5m ($47,000) or both for "transferring or copying sensitive basic information"; imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to PKR500,000 ($4,700) for creating a website for negative purposes; and imprisonment of seven years, a fine of PKR10m ($95,000) or both for interfering in sensitive data information systems.

Follow Hafsa Adil on Twitter: @hafsa_adil

Source: Al Jazeera