Internet and technology companies are threatening to leave Pakistan after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government granted blanket powers to authorities to censor digital content, a move critics charge is aimed at limiting freedom of expression.
The warning on November 20 from the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents tech giants including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, comes a day after government media regulators were granted wider powers.
The coalition said in a statement that it was “alarmed by the scope of Pakistan’s new law targeting Internet companies, as well as the government’s opaque process by which these rules were developed.”
Under the new regulations, social-media companies or Internet service providers face a fine of up to $3.14 million for failure to curb the sharing of content deemed to be defamatory to Islam or that promotes terrorism, hate speech, pornography, or any content viewed as endangering national security.
Social-media companies are required to open offices in Pakistan and provide the country’s designated investigation agency “with any information or data in a decrypted, readable, and comprehensible format," according to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.
The new rules will also make it difficult for its members “to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses," the statement said.
There was no immediate comment from Khan’s government, which has repeatedly said it was not against freedom of expression.
Digital rights activist Haroon Baloch said the rules undermine privacy, adding that his organization, Bytes For All, planned to file a court petition.
"Draconian data-localization requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open Internet," said Nighat Dad, another activist.
Khan's office had previously said the new rules were made after observing a delayed response in the removal of anti-Pakistan, obscene, and sectarian-related content by social-media sites since 2018, when Khan’s government came to power.
The latest development comes weeks after Khan’s government temporarily banned the video-sharing platform TikTok, saying it took the step after receiving complaints of “immoral and indecent” content.