The government is ready to review new social media rules introduced last year and will consult all stakeholders in this regard, Attorney General of Pakistan Khalid Jawed Khan told the Islamabad High Court (IHC) during a hearing on Monday.
IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah was hearing a petition by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and others against social media rules introduced by the government in November.
The new rules, introduced through the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, were immediately rejected by many stakeholders such as the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan (ISPAK) and were widely criticised as being "draconian".
During the hearing today, the AGP informed the court that the government supported a review of the social media regulation rules and "a review will be held after consultation with [relevant] stakeholders and petitioners."
Justice Minallah said the matter of enforcing social media rules involved Article-19 (Freedom of Speech) and Article-19A (Right to Information) of the Constitution which were "related to fundamental rights".
He said relevant stakeholders were seemingly not consulted during the formulation of the social media rules. "Pakistan Bar Council and PFUJ are important stakeholders in this matter."
To this, AGP Khan assured the court that the petitioners would be consulted and the government was not looking to put a "complete restriction" nor was "closing any [social media] platform the solution".
He asked the court to give some time during which the government could review the rules together with the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) and the concerned stakeholders.
Justice Minallah welcomed the attorney general's response which he said had been "very positive", further adding that "consultation is necessary and [a] very appropriate [course of action]." He told the attorney general to present his recommendations to the stakeholders if they were ready to review the social media rules.
Advocate Usama Khawar, representing one of the petitioners, told the court that they had been previously called for consultation but their recommendations were not given any weight.
Meanwhile, another lawyer for the petitioners, Kashif Malik, asked the court to pass an order restricting the government from acting against someone on the basis of the new rules.
"We will not pass any general order on this matter. If an order is passed on the basis of these rules, it can be challenged in court," said Justice Minallah, further adding that a judicial assistant had also been appointed in the case by the court.
Hearing of the case was adjourned to February 26.
Uproar over new rules
The new rules stipulated content regulation guidelines and expected all internet companies to implement them above their own globally applicable community guidelines, outlining types of content that would be deemed unlawful and removed within a day at the PTA’s request.
They 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.
Intermediary liability was also extended, whereby social media companies and internet service providers were 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 some of the mightiest tech giants in the world such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter — had swiftly criticised the rules soon after announcement. It said the rules made it extremely difficult for AIC members to continue availability of their services to Pakistani users and businesses.
Justice Minallah in a prior hearing in an unrelated case had observed on the rules that they "would discourage criticism and adversely affect accountability in the country". He had remarked, "Criticism is very important for democracy. Let the people have information and let them judge the government".
The PTA, meanwhile, maintained in response to criticism of non-consultation that “A comprehensive consultation process was carried out by the Consultation Committee formed on the directions of the prime minister of Pakistan.”