LHC orders FIA to file case against Google over ‘blasphemous content’

LAHORE/KARACHI, December 28, 2020: The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was ordered Monday to register a case against Alphabet Inc-owned Google over “blasphemous content” after Lahore High Court (LHC) Chief Justice Muhammad Qasim Khan lambasted authorities, as well as the PTI regime, for failing to perform basic duties in the “state of Medina”.

Justice Khan’s remarks came during the hearing of a petition to remove offensive content from the Internet wherein FIA Director-General Bashir Ahmed Memon and other top officials were present. Moreover, the development came just days after the state-run Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) issued notices to Google and Wikipedia over the dissemination of “sacrilegious content” through their platforms.

Expressing indignation at how “the situation was getting worse day by day”, the LHC’s top judge inquired if any material uploaded from abroad could be sued under the Pakistani law, to which the petitioner responded that content may be removed by the public institutions if it was visible to users in the country.

The federal government’s legal counsel, in response, said it was under the FIA’s jurisdiction to take action on the issue of removing blasphemous and sacrilegious content. The Agency has registered the complaint in accordance with the law, they added.

Justice Khan further questioned the FIA over what possible action it could initiate if someone spread blasphemous material in Pakistan from abroad. “Isn’t it the job of the government to enforce all the laws in the country,” he asked.

The judge stressed that the FIA must have a separate wing focused on checking and removing any offensive material from Pakistani websites. “The government should either block the entire system or say it will do nothing,” he underlined, adding that the Centre needed to openly state what it would do in this regard.

The court inquired if there was a possibility to book Google under the Pakistani law. “If [the FIA] has the authority, then register a case” against the California-based search giant, the judge said, adding that the investigative agency must respond by the day after tomorrow i.e. Wednesday, on whether the aforementioned order was a possibility.

On December 25, the PTA had issued notices to Google and Wikipedia — a collaborative multilingual online encyclopaedia — after “receiving complaints regarding misleading search results associated with ‘Present Khalifa of Islam’ and unauthentic version of Holy Quran uploaded by Ahmadiyya Community on Google Play Store”.

In a statement issued the same day, the state-run body had demanded that Google “immediately remove the unlawful content” in accordance with the Social Media Rules 3.0 — formally known as the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight & Safeguard) Rules 2020 — “to avoid any legal action”.

The PTA criticised Google and Wikipedia for “hosting of caricatures of Holy Prophet (PBUH)” and sharing “misleading, wrong, deceptive and deceitful information through articles published on Wikipedia portraying Mirza Masroor Ahmad as a Muslim”. It warned the platforms of initiating action under the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) and Social Media Rules 3.0 in case of non-compliance.

Social Media Rules 3.0 have been mired in controversy ever since they first came to the public’s attention back in February 2020 when social media users ‘caught’ them floating on the Internet without any intimation whatsoever by the PTI-led government.

The LHC’s counterpart in the federal capital, the Islamabad High Court (IHC), had earlier this month heard a petition filed by Pakistani journalist and anchorperson Amber Rahim Shamsi and issued orders to the PTA and the government to respond in this regard. In her December 17 petition, Shamsi had demanded the Social Media Rules 3.0 be declared ‘ultra vires’ and that the state-run regulator stopped from illegally and arbitrarily blocking content on the Internet.

In a prior hearing on December 18, and later adjourned to January 25, 2021, the IHC had raised concern and sent a notice to the PTA seeking its response to separate petitions filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Awami Workers Party (AWP), and a citizen identified as Ashfaq Jutt.

Abad Mansouri (pseudonym) is a journalist and activist writing on gender-based issues and mental health.

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