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Islamabad, February 18, 2020: In a statement, on February 17, addressed to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has stated that the new rules introduced by the government would make it “extremely difficult” for AIC members to provide services to users within Pakistan. The statement warns that with these rules, Pakistan risks “becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy”. The coalition represents thirteen leading global international tech and social media companies on issues of public policy, and includes Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Potential disruption of corporate services in Pakistan
The AIC stresses that “the way in which these Rules were passed is causing international companies to re-evaluate their view of the regulatory environment in Pakistan, and their willingness to operate in the country”.
Sadaf Khan, Director at Media Matters for Democracy, says, “The statement should be an eye opener for the government on the drastic impact that rules could have on the development of the country.” She adds, “The submission to the Prime Minister’s office should be extremely concerning to everyone as it effectively says that these global corporations might stop providing services to Pakistan, alienating our population from some of the most essential parts of the global Internet experience. The impact on digital economy would be paramount.”
The statement also voices concerns about the way the rules were announced and established calling them “vague and arbitrary in nature which is a result of the absence of public consultation.” It also goes on to say that some of the rules deviate from human rights practices and concerns on data privacy and freedom of expression.
The lack of consultation around the rules, and their notification without any prior discussion or intimation is something that the civil society within the country has already expressed to be problematic. The statement, drives that point further, by giving the example of mechanisms used in other countries to find solutions to problems of disinformation on the internet, specifically social media, without infringing on freedom of expression.
The statement, also copied to the Barrister Dr. Muhammad Farogh Naseem, Ministry of Information Technology, quotes the example of the UK in detail, where the government opened consultation on a paper to understand how to tackle disinformation in online spaces for a year. It also discusses how the UK is dealing specifically with issues related to child pornography and hate speech, unlike the wide and vague range of definitions given in the rules formulated by the Pakistani government.
The Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 were notified on January 21st, and were formulated under Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 and Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996. Earlier, the AIC had released a short statement on the Rules expressing serious concerns about the impact that the Rules would likely to be ‘detrimental to Pakistan’s ambitions for a digital economy’.
In a news report earlier by DAWN, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said that they had not been officially notified of the rules.
According to a report titled Digital World produced by We Are Social and Hoot Suite, in 2019 Pakistan had 44.61 million internet users and out of this, 37 million are active social media users. It also showed that active social media users increased by 2 million between 2018 – 2019, while those who use social media on their cell phone increased by 4 million. The data in the report shows that YouTube (owned by Google), Google search engine and Facebook are the top three websites accessed by people in the country.
These stats go on to show the impact of the shutdown of social media because of the rules or the withdrawal of these companies could have on the ordinary citizens in the country. All three companies that own the top three websites accessed by Pakistanis, are part of the AIC and have endorsed the statement, urging the Prime Minister to reconsider the rules and include stakeholders in the process.
Amel Ghani is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy and leads special initiatives on media development, digital rights, privacy online and Media and Information Literacy (MIL).