KARACHI: After six days of intermittent disruptions, the Sindh High Court (SHC) on Thursday ordered the telecom regulator to restore social media platform X across the country.

However, access was not fully restored in most cities hours after the order.

A two-judge bench, headed by SHC Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi, issued the orders while hearing a petition filed by journalists Zarrar Khuhro, Muna Khan and others over the outage of X.

During the hearing, the chief justice asked which individual or institution had the authority to order the shutdown of social media and who executed such directives.

Representing the petitioners, Advocate Abdul Moiz Jaferii replied that PTA was the regulatory authority. He also argued that the caretaker interior minister said his ministry did not issue any instruction to restrict access to X.

PTA ordered to restore social media platform across country

The bench observed that there must be no disruption in access to any social media platform, including X, if the due legal process is not followed.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), federal law officers and other respondents have been issued notices with directions to file replies till the next hearing.

The petition

The petition filed on Thursday cited the interior and IT & telecommunication ministries and PTA as respondents.

It pleaded that PTA restricted access to X on Jan 1 across the country. On Jan 20, internet access was disrupted again as several social platforms, including X, were completely inaccessible to users in Pakistan. On Feb 10, a similar outage was witnessed again in the immediate aftermath of general elections at a critical time when the platform was being used to spread news about widespread reports of rigging.

The petitioners also asserted that access to X was specifically blocked in its entirety on Feb 17 and continued to remain blocked and disrupted till Feb 20 — for more than 72 hours.

After briefly restoring access to X, it was again blocked on the same day (Feb 20) and remained blocked till the filing of the petition.

PTA imposed a blanket ban on access to X across the country, which affected users in all major cities as well as other areas, the petition pleaded.

As evidence, the application cited a map provided by Downdetector, highlighting X outages in several cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Gujranwala.

The petitioners asserted that PTA’s actions were in blatant violation of several laws, including its own Act, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021.

As per these laws and rules, the PTA is bound to act within a defined set of exceptions when determining whether it is necessary to disrupt the dissemination of online content or information.

The rules regarding content removal, from where PTA drives exclusive authority to disrupt the flow of information, specifically require it to act “subject to due process of law”, they maintained.

The petitioners also contended that the authority has miserably failed to adhere to any due process and has consistently violated its mandate and obligations to the citizens of Pakistan and the fundamental rights of the petitioners as guaranteed in the Constitution.

During the outage of X, the petitioners stated, several government officials published posts, including one by the caretaker federal minister for information technology, where he shared numbers on the growth of Pakistan’s IT industry.

They explained that the only way to bypass such restrictions was through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN), the use of which was illegal in Pakistan unless explicitly permitted by and registered with the PTA.

While referring to the Jan 24 interim order of SHC issued in another petition over the outage of social media platforms, the petitioners argued that they have been met with a similar unlawful treatment by PTA and are entitled to similar relief.

Last month, the court issued an interim restraining order, asking PTA and other respondents to ensure that there must be no disruption and shutting down of mobile internet and broadband services unless the relevant provisions of the Pakistan Telecom­munication (Re-Organisation) Act, 1996 and Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 were attracted.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2024

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