The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — an internet group that represents leading global Internet companies — has rejected the new social media rules announced by the Pakistan government, saying the tech giants would be forced to leave the country in case of such restrictions.
The statement came a day after the government imposed new curbs on social media that bound the technology companies to provide the designated investigation agency with any information or data in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format.
These new rules, “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020,” have been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). They were approved initially by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet in February.
They give the PTA “removal and blocking” powers of digital content that “harms, intimidates or excites disaffection” towards the government or poses a threat to the “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan”.
A service provider or social media company could face a fine up to Rs500 million ($3.14 million) for non-compliance, which would in turn trigger a mechanism preventing the uploading and live streaming, particularly related to “terrorism, hate speech, pornography, incitement to violence and detrimental to national security”.
A platform has to act within 24 hours or, in case of an emergency, six hours to remove content. The rules also empower the telecom authority to block an entire online system.
PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran told Reuters the rules were meant for better coordination with foreign-based social media companies, which usually “don’t respond to legal requirements”.
The new rules shocked rights activists who complained that there had been no consultation. “The expansion of these powers is just horrendous,” Nighat Dad, a digital rights activist, told Reuters.
“The consultation never occurred,” said Jeff Paine, managing director of AIC, urging the government to “work with industry on practical, clear rules”.
The AIC said in a statement: “The draconian data localisation requirements will damage the ability of people to access free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world.
“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.”
Furthermore, the tech companies warned that the rules would make it extremely difficult for the AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses, a report published in Dawn said.