The Islamabad High Court on Friday raised questions over the government’s new social media rules, observing that criticism was essential for democracy and discouraging it would have a detrimental impact.
The court was hearing a petition filed by the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) against the recently approved regulations titled ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020’.
The PBC contended that the rules violated rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah expressed his displeasure over the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) counsel citing the example of India to justify social media curbs.
“If India is in the wrong, should we follow suit?" the IHC CJ remarked.
He added that the court was very clear that fundamental rights of the citizens would not be violated.
The judge noted that if the new rules discouraged criticism, it would “discourage accountability”.
“Criticism is very important for democracy,” he observed, adding that the PTA should encourage it instead.
The IHC CJ warned that a ban on criticism in the 21st century would “lead to damage".
“Why should anyone be afraid of criticism? Everyone should face it. Even court decisions are criticised.”
Justice Minallah pointed out that there were no contempt proceedings for criticising court decisions after they were made public.
He added that the government or any law was not exempt from criticism and the social media regulations “highlighted a mindset”.
The judge also inquired as to who had recommended the preparation of the rules and which authority had approved them.
The PTA lawyer informed the court that letters had been written to the PBC and Islamabad Bar Council for their recommendations.
The IHC later issued directions to the PTA to take into account the objections raised by PBC and satisfy the court at the next hearing that the new rules were not contrary to Article 19 and 19(A) of the Constitution. The hearing was adjourned until December 18.
The government approved the social media rules last month despite criticism from human rights activists and organisations.
A national coordinator will be appointed under the new regulations for coordinating with stakeholders to regulate online systems.
One of the new rules requires a social media company' to remove, suspend or disable access to any online content within 24 hours, and in emergency situations, within six hours, after being intimated by the authority.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which includes tech giants Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Twitter, released a statement in which it condemned the approval of rules by the federal government.
“AIC and its member companies are alarmed by the scope of Pakistan’s new law targeting internet companies, as well as the government’s opaque process by which these rules were developed,” the statement read.
The rules will be damaging for Pakistan's digital economy, according to AIC. The AIC members may have to discontinue their services in Pakistan due to the new rules which go against prevailing human rights norms worldwide.
"The draconian data localisation requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world," the AIC said.
"The rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses. If Pakistan wants to be an attractive destination for technology investment and realise its goal of digital transformation, we urge the Government to work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect the benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm."