In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has warned that the government’s new rules to regulate social media activity will make it “extremely difficult” for digital companies to operate in Pakistan.
The letter dated February 15 was also copied to Law Minister Farogh Naseem, Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunication Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) chairman retired Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa. The letter was written in response to a set of rules to regulate social media activity in the country, under which social media companies will be obliged to disclose any information or data to a designated investigation agency, when sought. Failure to abide by any of the provisions will entail a fine of up to Rs500 million. In the letter, AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine expressed concern that unless revoked, “these rules would severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy”. “AIC members recognise Pakistan’s strong potential, but the sudden announcement of these rules belies the government of Pakistan’s claims that it is open for business and investment. In fact, the rules as currently written would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses,” the letter read.
The AIC comprises leading internet and technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Airbnb, Apple, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Grab, LinkedIn, LINE, Rakuten, and Yahoo (Oath).
The group pointed out that as no other country had announced such a “sweeping set of rules”, Pakistan risked becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses of the growth potential of the internet economy.
The letter further noted that the government had approved the rules without consultation or feedback from stakeholders and had caused international companies to “reevaluate” their plans to operate in the country. “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 digital companies also observed that the rules were vague and arbitrary in nature, which was a result of the absence of public consultation.
The lack of such discussion was problematic given that the rules demanded that social media companies deviate from established human rights practices concerning user privacy and freedom of expression. “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 stressed.
The AIC members insisted that they wished to better understand the motivations and concerns behind the rules in order to work collaboratively with the government on solutions. The AIC further said that it recognised that governments around the world were considering how best to deal with illegal and problematic online content. It said there was a 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,” it said.