Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan told the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that the government is ready to review social media rules introduced last year and will consult all stakeholders.
Arguing before Chief Justice Athar Minallah on a petition filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) against social media rules introduced by the government in November last year, he said that the government will review rules and regulations after consultation with stakeholders and petitioners.
The new rules, introduced through the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, were rejected by many stakeholders such as the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan (ISPAK) and were called “draconian”.
The Chief Justice said social media rules are governed under Article-19 (Freedom of Speech) and Article-19A (Right to Information) of the Constitution which are fundamental rights.
He said it seemed that stakeholders were not consulted while social media rules were being framed. “Pakistan Bar Council and PFUJ are important stakeholders in this matter,” he added.
The Attorney General assured the court that the petitioners would be consulted, and the government neither intends to put a complete restriction nor was closing any platform.
He requested the court to give some time so that the government could review the rules along with the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) and the stakeholders.
Justice Minallah welcomed his response as “very positive,” saying that “consultation is necessary and very appropriate.” He asked the Attorney General to present his recommendations to the stakeholders if they were ready to review the social media rules.
Advocate Usama Khawar, the PFUJ representative, informed the court that they were called for consultation but their recommendations were “not given any weight.”
Another counsel for petitioners, Kashif Malik, requested the court to pass an order restricting the government from acting against someone on the basis of the new rules.
Justice Minallah said he would not give any general order on this matter. If an order is passed on the basis of these rules, it would be challenged in court.
Hearing of the case was adjourned to February 26.
The new rules required all social media companies and internet service providers with more than half a million subscribers to open an office in Pakistan, appoint a local representative, and establish database servers, in addition to handing any data to the Federal Investigation Agency in a decrypted and readable form. They were also bound to comply with orders to censor content by the PTA and provide data related to users; in case of failure to do so, they would face complete blocking of their platform or company in the country, as well as a fine of Rs500 million.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), a coalition of tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter, criticised the rules and said the rules made it extremely difficult for members to continue availability of their services to Pakistani users.