IHC issues notices to federal govt in plea challenging social media regulation

Court asks government to submit reply in 14 days, petitioner says govt is trying to stifle freedom of speech

Web Desk

ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday issued notices to the federal government and directed it to submit its reply in 14 days on a petition challenging the draft laws for social media regulation.

IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah issued the directives on a petition filed by Advocate Raja Ahsan Mahmood Satti. The court directed the ministry of information and technology and the concerned parties to submit their reply to court within 14 days.

Satti was being represented in court by Barrister Jahangir Khan Jadoon. During the hearing, Jadoon told the court that his client has challenged the social media rules 2020 put forward by the government. He alleged that the government, through the laws, was trying to stifle a citizen’s right to freedom of speech.

Also read: Govt to launch crackdown against hate speech on social media: Chaudhry

The barrister also informed the court that the draft laws contradict the Constitution. However, Justice Minallah remarked that such regulations are placed all over the world. But the lawyer interjected and claimed that the government was trying to control the social media through the regulations.

“The government should be sent a notice and asked on the status of the rules,” added Jadoon. He said that under the draft rules, the government is planning to appoint a national coordinator to implement the Social Media Rules 2020.

The lawyer alleged that under the law, the coordinator has been given more power than the authority itself. The petitioner said that according to the rules, the coordinator can impose a fine up to Rs500 million on an individual if they violate the rules.

The counsel for the petitioner explained to the court that the rules were in conflict with Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution. After hearing the arguments, the court issued the directives to the concerned parties in the case. However, the court rejected the petitioner’s plea to issue a stay order on the rules. 

IHC adjourned the hearing of the case after issuing the directives.

Cabinet approves rules

The federal cabinet on February 12 approved a new set of rules to regulate social media, requiring companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even TikTok to register themselves and open offices in Pakistan. The approval has led proponents of Internet freedom worry that the legal document would be used to keep social media companies in check.

The rules and regulations have been included in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and senior officials in the Ministry of Information Technology confirmed to Geo News that the cabinet had given the green light to the legal document.

Further, Federal Secretary IT & Telecommunication Shoaib Siddiqui confirmed to Geo News that after the Cabinet's approval, the rules and regulations need not be presented in the Parliament for approval.

According to the law, all global social media platforms and companies would have to register in Pakistan within three months and open offices in Islamabad within the same period.

Also read: Watchdog hits out at government on new social media measures

The law requires the digital media companies to appoint a representative in Pakistan to deal with a national coordination authority, which would be responsible to regulate content on social media platforms.

It further requires the companies to set up data servers in Pakistan within a year and makes it compulsory for them to provide data of accounts found guilty of various crimes — including targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, engaging in harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content — to intelligence and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

Authorities would, therefore, take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions at home and abroad on social media. The law would also help the law enforcement authorities obtain access to data of accounts found involved in suspicious activities.

It would be the said authority's prerogative to identify objectionable content to the social media platforms to be taken down. In case of failure to comply within 15 days, it would have the power to suspend their services or impose a fine worth up to Rs500 million.

The legislation, also, defines terms such as social media, social media company, law enforcement, and the law in this context. Matters highlighted by the authorities may be taken up in high courts in all four provinces.

Concerning international laws, especially those in India, the official said he was unaware of legislation system there. It is to be noted that most social media companies were based in Canada and the United States and it was impossible to control content while sitting in Pakistan.