With a new IT bill, state draws battle lines against free speech

  • In attempting to regulate social media platforms, Oli administration violates the freedom of speech and opinion guaranteed under the constitution, experts say
- Bhrikuti Rai, Kathmandu

Feb 16, 2019-

A new Information Technology bill proposed by the KP Sharma Oli administration giving sweeping powers to authorities to block social media platforms if they are not registered in Nepal has raised alarm, as rights advocates say it curtails freedom of speech online and increases surveillance of personal data.

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, 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, experts say.

The bill comes just days after the government tabled a new law at the House of Representatives restricting civil servants from sharing their views on social networking sites, and four months after the porn ban. The IT management bill, which is set to be tabled in Parliament, has provisions to fine or imprison individuals who post “improper” contents on social networking sites that the authorities deem as discrediting individuals and an attack on national security.

Information rights activists say the bill threatens online freedom and would violate the freedom of speech and opinion enshrined in the constitution. Some of the critics of the bill suggest that the provisions in the bill will give the government greater power to suppress dissenting voices like in authoritarian regimes.

“If you start criminalising these things, the state will use its weapons to stifle the voices and people who criticise, who disagree and whom they don’t like,” said Taranath Dahal of Freedom Forum, a civil liberty group that advocates free speech.

The government has already been using the Electronic Transaction Act to arrest, and take action against, people based on their social media posts deemed “improper” by the authorities. According to the cyber crime cell at Nepal Police, 106 cases were filed in Kathmandu Valley in the last three years for posts on social media.

Critics of the bill say there are special laws that already exist to address sexual harassment, bullying, defamation and libel, which the IT management bill has brought under its orbit adding “cyber” to the above-mentioned offences. They argue that existing laws could accommodate these offences happening in the online space and that the bill has only opened the room to impose additional controls on free speech.

“The provisions in the bill go beyond the limitations on free speech recognised by the constitution. So, this is unconstitutional,” said Dahal.

The government has prescribed a fine up to Rs1.5 million and/or five years imprisonment for individuals who post online contents that fit the above-mentioned offences.

Under the proposed bill, content deemed “unsuitable on the grounds of morality and decency” will also be prohibited from being shared on social networks. Activists, especially those working with women, LGBTQI community and other marginalised groups for whom online space is essential to organise and build a support system, say the increased social media control will impact the already marginalised the most.

“Provisions in the new bill, which seeks to criminalise free speech by looking at it through the lens of decency and morality will dilute the protection enshrined by offline laws,” said Shubha Kayastha, co-founder of Body & Data which works in the intersection of gender, sexuality and digital technology in Nepal.

However, government authorities are already defending the bill. In an interview with the Post, Mahendra Gurung, secretary at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, said the new law will not stifle freedom of expression, but pave the way for data security and accountability of internet companies in Nepal.

“We’ve drafted this much-needed bill with a noble intention to protect the data of Nepalis and hold these large internet companies who make money from our personal data accountable,” said secretary Gurung. “About time these companies followed rules of the country they operate in.”

The government said it has taken a cue from recent stringent regulatory policies of the European Union and several countries to prevent data breach of their people and that it is the most comprehensive and clear bill to address the long-held concerns around IT management. Gurung emphasised that the bill does not aim to control the social networking platforms, but will only regulate them according to Nepal’s laws.

With this decision, Nepal is following the footsteps of other countries, in scrutinising the role played by giant tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others in shaping public opinion and news dissemination in its backyard.

Similar legislation has also raised questions about greater controls over free speech online. Last December, the Indian government proposed to give itself new rules to suppress contents online, alarming critics and information rights activists. The New York Times reported on Thursday that “the new rules could be imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government anytime after the public comment period ends on Thursday (February 14) night.”

More than a year ago, stakeholders from the IT sector were consulted as the bill began taking shape. Among the many reservations put forward was the comprehensive nature of the proposed bill which lumped together every cross-cutting sector that touches on information technology. IT experts like Hempal Shrestha, who was among the people involved in the consultation process, said this blanket regulation oriented approach would do more harm than good.

“The bill has a lot of grey areas which might hinder fair interpretation of the provisions when enacted as laws,” said Shrestha.

The government has tried to allay concerns of the critics of the bill saying there will be room for amendments and discussions among other lawmakers. But activists fear this bill, like several others in the past, would be bulldozed through Parliament.

“We aren’t expecting a lot to be changed or challenged in this bill through a parliamentary process,” said Tanka Raj Aryal of Internet Society of Nepal, “because of the ruling party’s two-thirds majority and their attitude towards previous bills presented in Parliament.”

Published: 16-02-2019 10:01

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