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Internet giants say their services may become unavailable under Pakistan’s new rules

Zaynab Khojji
Fri, 2020-11-20 22:58

ISLAMABAD: Leading global Internet companies may become unable to operate in Pakistan, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) said on Thursday in response to the country’s new social media rules.
Pakistan announced the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 on Wednesday to make digital networks and Internet service providers block and remove “unlawful online content” within 24 hours — or in emergency cases within six hours — after being reported by a government authority.
A service provider or social media company could face a fine of up to 500 million Pakistani rupees ($3.14 million) or shutdown for failing to prevent the uploading and live streaming of content related to “terrorism, hate speech, pornography, incitement to violence and detrimental to national security.”
“The Rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses,” said the Internet coalition, which comprises Amazon, AirBnb, Apple,, Expedia Group, Facebook, Grab, Google, LinkedIn, LINE, Rakuten, Twitter and Yahoo.
Khurram Ali Mehran, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), told Arab News that the purpose of the new rules was “to ensure effective implementation of local laws through quick removal of unlawful, defamatory, obscene and pornographic content from social media platforms.”
However, the AIC said: “It’s 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.” It added that the “draconian data localization requirements” under the new rules would “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 new rules allow any individual, government department, including a law enforcement or intelligence agency, to file a complaint against any unlawful online content with reasons for its removal or blocking access on digital platforms.
Islamabad has been struggling to regulate online content by blocking and removing fake news and propaganda against the country’s national security institutions, including the army, blasphemous content, and other sensitive material that violates cultural norms of the country.
The rules were approved initially by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Cabinet in February, but while the government promised to initiate a consultation with the tech industry, according to AIC the talks “never occurred” and members of the group are “alarmed by the scope of Pakistan’s new law targeting Internet companies, as well as the government’s opaque process by which these rules were developed.”
The new rules also suggest that the companies will be bound to establish one or more database servers in Pakistan to store data and online content. While the stored content would be subject to the promulgation of data protection laws, activists raise concerns.
“This is just to give the impression that there is a legal cover for this (blocking the online dissent and freedom of expression), but how legal this is and how constitutional this is, is up for challenge,” Farieha Aziz, a digital rights activist who heads Bolo Bhi, told Arab News.
“Journalists and activists have a lot to lose because social media is now their only other avenue (to express themselves),” she said.

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Asia Internet Coalition (AIC)

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