After getting clearance from the Parliamentary Development and Technology Committee, the controversial Information Technology Bill is now in the House of Representatives for deliberation. It is an irony that a proposed legislation, which has provisions to curtail the fundamental rights of citizens, has made its way through the House of Representatives without sufficient discussions inside and outside parliament.
The different clauses of the Bill will adversely impact the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution including freedom of speech and expression, press freedom and privacy of individuals. It will impede development of the IT sector and the overall internet ecosystem in the country. For example, Section 115 of the proposed legislation has the most objectionable provision which is aimed at controlling freedom of expression. It gives the government absolute power to bypass the judiciary to form a semi-judicial tribunal to punish people with severe sentences if it finds their postings on social media and other online contents to be ‘crimes against the state’. It is unthinkable in any democracy that a government can act against citizens in such a draconian manner and makes freedom of expression a criminal offence. Similarly, the government ‘can direct’ operators of social media services to remove posted/uploaded content or ones that are in the process of getting posted/uploaded if the authorities view such content as being illegal.
Not only ordinary citizens, IT firms are also likely to get penalised for providing services to customers. As per Clause 92 of the Bill, ISPs will have to face criminal prosecutions if web links and other information, that are deemed illegal, are found in the services they provide to subscribers. Similarly, if the Bill is enacted as law, IT businesses in the country will be required to register at the Department of Information Technology and existing firms will get six months once the law is enacted to register. They will be barred from operating if they do not renew their company registration every two years. Bankers have already objected to clauses 68 and 81 of the Bill stating that the provisions restrict them in terms of international exchange of information about remittance and other financial transactions and also hamper the operations of foreign joint venture banks in Nepal.
It is undisputed that parliament reserves the right to pass any Bill. Nevertheless, it does not mean that getting parliamentary endorsement for laws with highly sensitive contents like the IT Bill only through a majority represents a democratic process. It is also important for the government to take opposition parties into confidence while endorsing a proposed legislation like the IT Bill which has far-reaching effects. Furthermore, a broader consensus is also necessary by bringing together the stakeholders including members of the civil society, IT entrepreneurs and independent experts to evaluate the negative and positive aspects of such legislations.