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Pakistan

Global tech firms seek PM's assistance for critical changes to new social media rules

  • AIC, in its letter, states that rules were finalised without explanation or due process and lacks credibility and transparency
  • Tech companies says the government should encourage foreign investment through incentives rather forcing companies to open local offices
10 Dec 2020

(Karachi) Global technology firms have sought Prime Minister Imran Khan's support to ensure that critical changes are made to the newly approved social media rules, making it difficult for the companies to continue their services in Pakistan, Dawn reported.

The new rules titled “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020” have been published in official gazette under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca).

In a 13-page letter by the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), it called the government to initiate a consultation process through which AIC members can provide positive input and address crucial issues such as internationally-recognised rights to individual expression and privacy.

The AIC stated that during meetings with AIC and its member companies, the PTA had committed to share a draft copy of the rules, but the rules were recently updated by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication on its website.

It said the rules were finalised without explanation or due process and lacks credibility and transparency.

The AIC letter stated, “Industry stakeholders have therefore lost trust in the consultation process, because it is neither credible nor transparent.” It added that instead of clarifying the scope of the powers given to the PTA, these rules created confusion for both users and online platforms in Pakistan.

The tech giants, including Facebook and Google, maintained that large portions of the rules were not only unworkable for global internet platforms, but also went beyond the scope of the Parent Act (Peca 2016), putting their legality into question.

Preventing free speech

The AIC said the data localisation requirements in the rules would prevent people in Pakistan from accessing a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world.

"The forced data localisation requirements as contemplated under Rule 9(5) would significantly increase costs for businesses and consumers; harm local businesses that are seeking access to a globally competitive network of service providers and decrease the security of user data."

The Asia content coalition stated that due to expansion in PTA’s powers, it allows the regulator to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression.

The tech firms said they needed a reasonable period of time to assess a takedown request once all the required information has been provided by the requesting individual. “We propose that requests should be responded to within a reasonable timeframe, or without undue delay,” they said.

Local presence

The AIC said the government should encourage foreign investment through incentives rather forcing companies to open local offices. It stated there is need to create an enabling environment and growing the base of internet-connected consumers.

The letter mentioned that the working of social media outlets related to online content did not depend on having local presence, rather on having well-established processes and product-specific policies, clear local laws to guide the process, and properly informed and valid requests for takedowns.

“The AIC today reaffirms this commitment to the Prime Minister and calls for his full and direct support in ensuring that Pakistan does not go down a highly counter-productive path that could derail the efforts that the government and the ICT industry have painstakingly invested in for many years,” it said.

The AIC urged the government to work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm if Pakistan wants to be an attractive destination for technology investment and realize its goal of digital transformation.

New regulations

Under the new regulations introduced by the government, 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.

In addition, social media companies are required to provide Pakistan's designated investigation agency with any information or data in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format. Pakistan also wants the social media companies to have their offices in the country.

The tech firms have also been directed to remove or block any unlawful content from their websites within 24 hours after being reported by Pakistani authorities.

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