PTI govt’s social media rules will ‘cripple’ digital economy

Internet giants warn new policy will make it ‘extremely difficult’ for companies to operate in Pakistan

​ Our Correspondent February 16, 2020
Internet giants warn new policy will make it ‘extremely difficult’ for companies to operate in Pakistan. PHOTO: FILE

ISLAMABAD: The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has warned that the government’s new social media rules would “severely cripple” the growth of the Pakistan’s digital economy and make it “extremely difficult” for companies to provide their services to country’s users and businesses.

In a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan dated February 15, the AIC -- an association representing Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, eBay and Apple among other industry giants and formed for promoting the understanding and resolution of internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region -- pointed out that no other country had announced such a sweeping set of rules and Pakistan risked becoming a “global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy”.

Noting that the policy was prepared without any form of consultation or input from stakeholders outside the government, the association pushed for initiating a proper public consultation to ensure wider participation in developing a new set of rules.

The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, approved by the federal cabinet, requires all social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to register within three months and establish their offices in Islamabad. They will have to create a data server in Pakistan within a year and block any account or prevent or remove any content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan” and is “involved in spreading of fake news or defamation”.

“The Government of Pakistan released the Rules without any form of consultation or input from stakeholders outside the government,” read the letter, penned by AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine.

“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.”

The AIC observed that the rules were vague and arbitrary in nature because of the absence of public consultation.

“The lack of such discussion is problematic given that the Rules demand that social media companies deviate from established human rights practices concerning user privacy and freedom of expression,” it added.

“Therefore, we strongly urge the Government of Pakistan to initiate a proper public consultation to ensure wider participation to develop a new set of rules.”

The AIC further stated that its members wished to better understand the motivations and concerns underlying this proposal, so that they could work collaboratively with the Pakistani government on solutions.

“We recognise that governments around the world are considering how best to deal with illegal and problematic online content,” it noted.

“There’s shared agreement among governments about letting people create, communicate, and find information online, while preventing people from misusing content-sharing platforms like social media, messaging, voice or video calling applications. Therefore, AIC members have been working in consultation with governments on this challenge for years, using both computer science tools and human reviewers to identify and stop a range of online abuse.”

The association pointed out that there was much interest around the world in ensuring a safe online environment. “It is important to note in this regard that many of the ambitious conversations in this area are the subject of in-depth, evidence-based, and lengthy policy research and exchanges, where a panoply of policy solutions are being explored rather than a single, blunt legislative route.”

The AIC cited the example of the Online Harms White Paper released in the UK over a year ago, “following months of early exploration by civil servants and the stakeholder community”.

“The UK government released on 12 February 2020 its response to the consultation on the White Paper, which clarified a number of points, starting with an emphasis on the respect of fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, the importance of transparency, and clarity and certainty for business,” it noted.

“Rather than rushing to legislate at this stage, the UK government is recommending a series of further studies, to ascertain the methods to tackle online harms most effectively in practice. It is also important to note that the UK's efforts on Online Harms are focused on specific areas of child abuse and hate speech, rather than a very wide interpretation of online harms, which would have risked confusion and ineffectiveness through lack of prioritisation.”

The AIC observed that some within the Pakistani government had drawn parallels between its rules and Vietnam’s Law on Cybersecurity.

“It’s important to note, however, that while Vietnam’s Parliament approved the Law on Cybersecurity in June 2018, it has not yet been implemented. What’s more, a broad range of governments, industry and civil society groups have expressed grave concerns with the law and Vietnam’s proposed implementing regulations (which, again, have not been finalised or approved).”

The AIC maintained that it was not against the regulation of the social media and acknowledged that Pakistan already had an extensive legislative framework governing online content.

“However, these Rules fail to address crucial issues such as internationally recognised rights to individual expression and privacy,” the letter read.

“They also contravene the legislative enactments under which the Government of Pakistan has framed them. Neither the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, nor the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) envision the broad powers granted through these Rules. On the contrary, PECA grants safe harbour protection to intermediaries or social media platforms.”

The AIC urged the government to consider the potential consequences of the rules to prevent “unexpected negative impacts” on the country’s economy. It also hoped for an opportunity to share a more detailed feedback with the government in the near future.

The association also sent copies of the letter to Law Minister Farogh Naseem, Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunication Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Chairman Maj (retd) Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa.