Cybercrime bill to give PTA power to censor Internet

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The government’s new cyber crime bill may finally permit the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the authority to manage, remove or block content on the Internet.

During a subcommittee meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology on Wednesday, senators and stakeholders took up section 34 of the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, which deals with the “Power to manage online information etc”.

Since 2006, PTA has blocked websites containing pornographic and/or blasphemous content, as well as blogs and social media websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

But the Pakistan Telecommunication (Reorganisation) Act 1996 – under which the PTA was formed and from which it derives its authority – does not expressly empower the authority to regulate, manage or block Internet content.

This authority is under Inter-Ministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites, which was disbanded by the PML-N government in March 2015.

Now, under section 34, titled ‘Power to manage online information’, the PTA is being given the “power to manage information and issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any information through any information system”.

Senators and stakeholders insisted the change should come through an amendment to the PTA act rather than the PECB.

Despite the insistence of Committee Convenor Senator Osman Saifullah and PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar, officials from the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) seemed reluctant to consider this alternative and insisted that there was no harm in empowering the PTA through the new cybercrime law.

Earlier, Senator Saifullah had been adamant that the special protections for minors against sexual exploitation or blackmail, enshrined in section 19 of the PECB, be retained.

The senator said that we cannot afford to lower the bar when it comes to minors.

However, he was not pleased when MoIT officials told him they had “limitations” and asked the committee convenor to provide them with the exact phrasing of the clause he wanted to insert.

“We think this is the best possible formulation,” Rizwan Bashir Khan, the MoIT additional secretary quipped, prompting Senator Saifullah to ask whether he should wind up the meeting since the ministry was refusing to do its job.

The MoIT officials’ continued reluctance led Senator Mohsin Leghari to observe that they were simply “toeing the line that was drawn by the minister”, referring to Anusha Rehman’s stubbornness at a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology held on June 22.

Although this was the second subcommittee meeting on the issue, most stakeholders and civil society had not prepared alternative formulations of clauses, as per the convenor’s instructions a day earlier.

Asad Baig of Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) was the only one who came prepared with text for a clause that would extend protections to journalists, whistleblowers and others working for the public good.

However, his suggestion did not go down too well with MoIT officials who were in the room at the time.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. All that this government has been doing is ban and censor and ignored larger problems faced by the people

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