A Constitutional writ petition was filed before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) which challenged Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020.
IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah is scheduled to hear the petition on Monday, August 17.
The petition had been moved by Advocate Usama Khawar on behalf of Asad Baig, the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy.
Expressing concern over and alarmed by the rules, the petitioner had requested the IHC declare them ultra vires under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 and the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 which are the fundamental rights of the citizens secured in the Constitution that include right to access to information and freedom of expression, the doctrine of delegated legislation, and Pakistan’s international commitments and obligations.
Making the federal government, Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) as respondents, Advocate Khawar had requested to suspend the implementation of the rules.
The petition contended that it is not the prerogative of the federal government to frame rules under Section-37 of PECA 2016 for removal, blocking or issuance of directions for removal or blocking of online content by the relevant authority.
“The Authority shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act,” PECA 2016 stated.
According to Advocate Khawar, the civil society, rights watchdogs, journalists, activists, and global internet giants had opposed the new rules for regulating social media.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had expressed its concerns that the authorities wanted to use the regulations to control the “freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting “religious, cultural, ethnic, and national security sensitivities”.
Superior bars of the country, including Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), had also voiced concerns over the impugned rules.
Similarly, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an association of leading internet and tech companies including Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, AirBnb, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Yahoo, Grab, LinkedIn, and Rakuten had warned Prime Minister Imran Khan that the rules would severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy and make it extremely difficult for its members to make their services available to the country’s users and businesses.
The petition further prayed to declare the national coordinator, as envisioned and established under the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, as an unlawful and unconstitutional entity, and the said the national coordinator be permanently restrained from functioning.
According to the Khawar, “The office of the national coordinator has been given broad and sweeping powers affecting the fundamental rights of citizens. National coordinator’s powers are dictatorial and has no place in a democratic society.”
Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020
The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, approved by the federal cabinet, requires all social media companies, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, to register within three months and establish their offices in Islamabad.
They will also have to create a data server in Pakistan within a year and block any account or prevent or remove any content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan” and is “involved in spreading of fake news or defamation”.