House panel passes controversial IT Bill disregarding dozens of amendment proposalsIn an attempt to regulate the cyberspace, the government has given itself enormous new powers to curb online content, experts say.
The Development and Technology Committee of the House on Sunday passed the controversial Information Technology Bill without making major amendments, which many fear could curtail freedom of speech online and increase surveillance of personal data.
When it was tabled earlier this year, the bill raised alarm bells for its comprehensive nature which lumps together every cross-cutting issue related to information technology, proposing sweeping changes on everything from social media use to surveillance, e-commerce and tech innovation. It also has provisions of hefty fines or imprisonment of individuals who post “improper” content on social networking sites that the authorities deem discrediting individuals and an attack on national security.
Lawmakers had submitted nearly 100 amendments on the bill’s various provisions including the removal of clauses which criminalise people’s interactions on the internet.
“Criminalising people’s freedom of expression in the internet ecosystem will hurt people’s right to exercise the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution,” said Taranath Dahal of Freedom Forum, a civil liberty group that advocates free speech. “This legislation has effectively weakened individuals’ privacy in the digital realm and given room for state agencies to have more say, and even intervene in the use of personal data.”
The committee’s green light to the bill, without taking into consideration a majority of the amendments, has now given sweeping powers to authorities, among many things, to block social media platforms if they are not registered in Nepal. The broad definition of “social network” in the bill includes all information and communication technology-based platforms where people and organisations interact or share content.
This would include everything from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to messaging services like Viber. Even the more secure platforms like WhatsApp and Wire could fall under the purview of the laws enacted through this bill.
After it was tabled in February, there was a public outcry over the proposed legislation’s intention to stifle free speech. But House committee Chair Kalyan Kumari Khadka repeatedly defended the bill, saying the intention was only to regulate the online space for the greater good of society.
“All we are trying to do is get rid of elements which are corrupting our values and the society, while respecting the constitution’s spirit to create an upright society,” Khadka told the Post earlier this year.
On Sunday, after the House committee endorsed the bill, Khadka once again stood in defence of the bill.
“But we have made amendments on 36 points. This is is no small feat,” Khadka told the Post.
Asked why the committee didn’t consider decriminalising social media interactions, as proposed by a number of lawmakers, Khadka said: “We have addressed a lot of things, but there is no way we could have removed all those clauses regarding social media and decriminalise those kinds of behaviour.”
The primary opposition Nepali Congress had objected to certain provisions of the bill and presented a different view, saying if the bill was passed in the current form, it could stifle people’s constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.
But the committee rejected the Congress’ proposal.
Stakeholders from Nepal’s IT community, who had held several rounds of consultation with lawmakers and members of the media and civil society to shed light on the problematic nature of the bill, say they are disappointed by the passage of the bill by the House committee without accepting crucial amendments.
“Instead of enabling the IT ecosystem, provisions in the bill are even more regressive. It tries to kill innovation in the IT sector,” said Hempal Shrestha, a tech policy expert, who was among the people involved in the consultation process during the bill’s early drafting stages.
Tech companies will now be required to take multiple permissions from the government to purchase and distribute all kinds of equipment. “This is not a well-thought-out law and it could serve as a bottleneck for businesses,” said Shrestha.
Rights activists say the manner in which the House committee passed the bill without taking into consideration the concerns, criticism and suggestions signals similar fate for other controversial bills.
“The committee passed the bill just the way the government wanted,” said Dahal. “Now there isn’t much hope when it comes to other bills, as the government looks bent on passing them without taking criticism and suggestions into consideration.”