January 6, 2021, ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Tuesday remarked that it would rather be better for social media companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as video-sharing website YouTube, to open their offices in Pakistan to better deal with and request immediate comments on controversial matters.
The observation was made during a hearing presided over by IHC Justice Aamer Farooq over a petition by Lal Masjid’s Shohada Foundation of Pakistan to permanently ban streaming platform Netflix over sacrilegious content. If the social media giants set up their representative offices in the country, they “will also be asked to respond to controversial material”.
During the hearing, the PTA’s legal counsel, Advocate Naeem Ashraf, apprised the court that efforts were underway to facilitate YouTube to open its office in Pakistan. The state-run regulatory body, however, cannot block anything on YouTube by itself but only alerts the website of any controversial content, he added.
Advocate Tariq Asad appeared on behalf of the petitioning organisation, telling the court that a “blasphemous” film — that “violated Islamic values and insulted holy personalities” — was being released on Netflix.
Petitioner seeks ban similar to that on YouTube in 2011
“The PTA should have banned Netflix as soon as the movie’s trailer came out just like it imposed a ban on YouTube in 2011,” Asad opined, to which Ashraf told the court that the trailer was released on a website called ‘Best Netflix’ and not the streaming platform, the former of which had already been contacted.
Addressing the petitioner’s counsel, Justice Farooq underlined that even before Lal Masjid’s Shohada Foundation of Pakistan approached the court, the state-run regulatory body had approached all social media forums to remove the content.
The judge also ruled that the PTA should monitor any controversial material on the Internet and, therefore, the Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) — which the petitioner had named as a party — “has nothing to do with it”.
The IHC further directed the PTA to submit a report on the steps taken to block and stop the publication of controversial content on social media at the next hearing scheduled in two weeks. It also directed for a copy of the infamous Social Media Rules 3.0 to be submitted in the next session.
A day prior, Lal Masjid’s Shohada Foundation of Pakistan through its trustee Hafiz Ihtesham Ahmed, a resident of Rawalpindi, had filed the petition calling for a permanent ban on Netflix. The petitioning organisation has, in the past, also called for cutting diplomatic relations with France and raised concern over a minority community not being termed non-Muslims in the National Commission for Minorities (NCM).
Advocate Asad during that hearing had alleged that the PTA took no concrete measures to stop the film dubbed “sacrilegious”. The movie was brought to public notice after the regulatory body issued advisory calling for its ban on social media.
The PTA’s advisory on the movie attracted commentary from the public, who said they were not aware of the film until the tweet brought it to their notice. A similar pattern was also witnessed when public reaction on Innocence of Muslims, a 2012 amateur film on YouTube, led to countrywide protests and resulted in a three-year ban on the video-sharing platform in Pakistan.
Social Media Rules 3.0 challenged via four petitions
Interestingly, the constitutional status of the so-called Social Media Rules 3.0 — officially known as the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020 — has already been challenged in the same court through four separate petitions.
In a prior hearing over a different petition, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah had advised the PTA to submit a response by January 25 as to how the Social Media Rules 3.0 could be introduced when they were in conflict with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan.
Justice Minallah had also demanded an answer from the PTA as to why the views of all relevant parties were sought before making the Social Media Rules 3.0.