In a scathing letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, technology companies have sought his assistance to ensure that critical changes are made to the newly approved social media rules, which have made it “extremely difficult” for social media firms to continue their platforms and services in Pakistan.
The 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).
The letter dated Dec 5, shared with Dawn by the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), urgently calls for a credible consultation process through which AIC members can provide substantive input and address crucial issues such as internationally-recognised rights to individual expression and privacy. The AIC noted that during bilateral 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 without explanation or due process, underscoring the lack of credibility and transparency in the process through which these rules were finalised.
The AIC letter stated: “Industry stakeholders have therefore lost trust in the consultation process, because it is neither credible nor transparent.” Instead of clarifying the scope of the powers given to the PTA, these rules created further confusion for both users and online platforms in Pakistan, the coalition explained.
The tech giants, including Facebook and Google, reiterated their position 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.
Data localisation, free speech
In particular, the AIC said the data localisation requirements in the rules would prevent Pakistani citizens 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.
Besides, the AIC believed, PTA’s powers had been expanded excessively, allowing the regulator to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression. A narrow scope would allow the PTA to define and draw clear lines between legal and illegal speech and content, based on evidence of harm consistent with both international norms and Articles 10A, 19 and 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan, according to the coalition.
In terms of takedown requests, social media companies 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.
The AIC said instead of forcing companies to open local offices, Pakistan should encourage and facilitate foreign investment through incentives, creating an enabling environment and growing the base of internet-connected consumers.
It explained that the effectiveness with which social media companies moderated 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.