Global tech giants threaten to leave Pakistan if social media rules stay
Major technology and internet companies have threatened to leave Pakistan after the government notified rules that gives blanket powers to authorities to censor digital content.
The rules titled, “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020,” have been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca).
In a statement, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which represents global technology giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter, expressed its alarm over the scope of the new law targeting internet companies, as well as the government’s “opaque process” by which these rules were developed.
Under the new regulations, social media companies or internet service providers face a fine of up to $3.14 million for failure to curb the sharing of content deemed to be defamatory of Islam, promoting terrorism, hate speech, pornography or any content viewed as endangering national security.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to initiate a “broad-based” consultation on content regulation after a strong backlash from stakeholders over the release of formally known as the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020.
“The consultation that was announced in February never occurred,” AIC managing director Jeff Paine regretted in the statement.
The tech companies warned that the rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.
The new rules will prompt social media companies to provide the designated investigation agency with any information or data in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format. Subject to justifiable technical limitations, the information to be provided may include subscriber information, traffic data, content data and any other information or data.
“The draconian data localisation requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world,” the AIC said.
The companies said it was chilling to see the PTA’s powers expanded, allowing them to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression.
Earlier in October, the AIC had expressed its reservations over the consultation process in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Khan.
“The lack of transparency on the consultation, an abbreviated consultation process, and strict local office requirements for online platforms are very concerning,” Paine had stated.
“The consultation process therefore appears to have lost credibility,” it said.
In response to the notification of rules by the government, the AIC said if Pakistan wanted to be an attractive destination for technology investment and realise its goal of digital transformation, then it should work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect the benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm.
The latest development comes weeks after Khan’s government temporarily banned the video-sharing platform TikTok, saying it took the step after receiving complaints of “immoral and indecent” content.