The federal government has finally agreed to review its new social media policy – Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020 – introduced in November last year amid protest by various stakeholders.
Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Javed Khan on Monday told an Islamabad High Court (IHC) bench that the government will revisit the rules in consultation with the stakeholders as well as the petitioners, who challenged the rules.
IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah noted that Article-19 (Freedom of Speech) and Article-19A (Right to Information) are related to human rights. “It seems that the government while framing the new rules did not consult with the relevant stakeholders,” he said.
The state’s top law officer said banning a social media platform is not a solution.
“We request that the court may give the government some time so that it may review the rules in consultation with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the petitioners and the relevant stakeholders,” Khalid Javed Khan said.
The court welcomed the AGP’s response and declared it “very positive”. “Consultation is necessary. If the government is ready to review the rules then the petitioners and stakeholders must submit proposals to it in this regard,” Justice Minallah said.
One of counsels for the petitioners, Usama Khawar said they had earlier presented their proposals to the PTA but the telecom and social media regulator did not consider any of them. Justice Minallah asked him to have faith in the government and expect a positive outcome.
The court later adjourned hearing of the case till February 26.
The new rules – framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) and introduced on November 19, 2020 – placed all the internet service providers (ISPs) on a par with social media companies and applied all the requirements of the social media platforms to the ISPs as well.
Under the new rules, a national coordinator was to be appointed to coordinate with the stakeholders for regulating online systems.
It required the social media companies to immediately remove, suspend or disable access to any online content in contravention of Peca, or any other law, rule, regulation or instruction of the coordinator.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) – including tech giants like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and others – was quick to condemn approval of the rules.
“The 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 coalition said in a statement released on November 20.
While a number of organizations expressed concern over the new rules, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) – the country’s prime body of journalists – on December 17 moves the IHC against the rules and urged the court to declare them “null and void”.
The petitioner claimed that the rules are “inconsistent with and in derogation of the fundamental rights” as enshrined in the Constitution and are “ultra vires, as the scope of these rules goes beyond the legal mandate given to the respondents’ under the parent acts”.
The PFUJ claimed that the PTA and the government had “embarked on an illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional exercise of interpretation of constitutional provisions”. It referred to Section 37 of Peca and various rules to highlight legal and human rights concerns.
It also referred to the criticism by journalistic, legal and digital rights communities and said the rules are “being seen as a tool for arbitrary and excessive censorship in online spaces and an attempt to stifle criticism and dissent on online platforms”.
The petitioner also challenged the validity of “over-broad and arbitrary” definitions and noted that these definitions would eventually create “legal liabilities not only for companies but also individuals who may work for such companies”.
It also quoted the AIC’s statements that highlighted the “potentially adverse impact” that the rules might have on Pakistan’s digital economy.
“[The rules will] inevitably have an adverse effect on the growth of the digital economy in Pakistan, as it will lead to imposition of illegal, unreasonable, exorbitant and cumbersome obligations on online platforms, social media companies and internet users,” it stated.