Tech giants call for ‘changes’ to Pakistani censorship laws

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Tech giants call for ‘changes’ to Pakistani censorship laws

Islamabad, Pakistan – Tech giants Google, Facebook and others have sought “critical changes” to newly passed Pakistani internet regulations that broaden censorship and authorise widespread surveillance without judicial oversight, among other issues, in a new letter to the Pakistani prime minister.

The letter, dated December 5 but shared with journalists on Wednesday, details the major concerns of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which represents Google, Facebook, Twitter and others in the region, regarding new internet regulations passed last month.

“AIC members are alarmed by the scope of Pakistan’s new Rules, as well as the opaque process by which these rules were finalised,” reads the letter.

A version of the new regulations was first passed in February but was quickly rescinded by Prime Minister Imran Khan after an outcry by rights groups and technology companies. Khan promised there would be an inclusive consultative process to amend the regulations.

The AIC, digital rights activists and officials at social media companies, however, told Al Jazeera such a process never occurred. A new version of the rules was passed and implemented in November, with few changes to the original regulations.

On December 1, the government revised the rules once more, to remove a clause that outlawed any criticism of the federal and provincial government or any public office holders after rights groups decried the move as being authoritarian.

The new AIC letter referenced the move to revise the rules last week without official consultations or processes as being problematic.

“Industry stakeholders have therefore lost trust in the consultation process because it is neither credible nor transparent,” reads the letter.

Privacy concerns

Use of the internet in Pakistan is regulated under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), a far-reaching piece of legislation passed in 2016 that legalised censorship of the internet based on broad notions of, including others, “the security and defence of Pakistan”, “the glory of Islam” or “public order, decency or morality”.

The new regulations are aimed at systematising how content is blocked in Pakistan, making it mandatory for online platforms to take down any content requested by Pakistani authorities within 24 hours. In some cases, that period is reduced to six hours.

Companies – whether local or foreign – that do not comply with Pakistani government takedown or data surveillance requests would face fines of up to $3.14m, according to the regulations.

The new regulations also make it mandatory for large social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and others who have more than half a million users in Pakistan to establish offices and data servers in the country, a move the tech companies have resisted.

“The data localisation requirements in the Rules will prevent Pakistani citizens from accessing a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world,” reads the AIC’s letter.

The rules also require all technology companies to share decrypted user data with authorities without a warrant, a clause that rights groups and technology companies say violates human rights norms.

The companies must provide “any information or data or content or sub-content contained in any information system owned or managed or run by the [company] in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version”, according to the rules.

“[T]he PTA’s powers have been expanded excessively, allowing them to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression,” reads the AIC’s letter.

Pakistan’s government says it is open to continuing consultations with stakeholders. Last week, Pakistan’s Information Technology Minister told Al Jazeera the government would stand by content bans but was open to continuing dialogue with companies.

“The government of Pakistan will not tolerate three things in any form,” Amin-ul-Haque told Al Jazeera. “Hate speech, number one. Number two is anti-state content, and number three is vulgarity.”