Global Internet giants, rights watchdogs, journalists, and activists have opposed Pakistan’s sweeping new rules for regulating social media.
The regulations, adopted by the federal cabinet late last month, were notified last week. They seek to establish complete government control over social media platforms, a move that many see as ultimately aimed at silencing dissent and curbing online free speech.
“First and foremost, we wish to express our sincere concern that unless revoked, these rules will severely cripple the growth of Pakistan's digital economy,” Jeff Paine, the managing director of Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), noted in an open letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The AIC is an association of leading IT companies including Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, AirBnb, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Yahoo, Grab, LinkedIn, and Rakuten.
In his February 15 letter, Paine noted that the rules are vague and arbitrary. “The rules demand that social media companies deviate from established human rights practices concerning user privacy and freedom of expression,” he noted, urging Islamabad “to initiate a proper public consultation to ensure wider participation to develop a new set of rules.”
The letter warns Islamabad of impending consequences if it fails to review the regulations.
“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 said. “No other country has announced such a sweeping set of rules, Pakistan risks becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy.”
AIC’s response came after the Pakistani government adopted a new set of rules called the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020. They detail unprecedented rules for social media companies essentially requiring them to regulate content, provide user data, and immediately comply with official requests of content removal. The new rules require tech giants to establish offices and servers in the country. The regulations can also slap fines of more than $3 million for violations.
“We urge the government of Pakistan to consider the potential consequences of the rules in order to prevent unexpected negative impacts on Pakistan’s economy,” the AIC letter noted.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a leading nongovernmental watchdog, however, is worried that the authorities want to use the regulations to control the “freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting ‘religious, cultural, ethnic, and national security sensitivities.’”
HRCP says that after imposing extensive censorship on print and electronic media, the new rules are aimed at controlling social media, which was the last vestige of free space. “Instituting such stringent rules will contract the space that exists for citizens to access information that the mainstream media does not, or cannot, provide,” a February 14 statement noted.
Journalist Hamid Mir, a leading TV presenter, says the new rules will create a headache for Khan’s government by maligning it internationally. “This law was not discussed in parliament, its enforcement without any discussion is [also] a contempt for Parliament and constitution,” he tweeted.
Lawmaker Maleeka Bukhari, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party’s parliamentary secretary for law and justice, acknowledged that the growing criticism of the rules might prompt authorities to reexamine them.
“It is clear that many journalists, social media activists, and international organizations do not agree with this law [rules], so the government has to review its plan,” she told the private Hum TV.
It is still not clear whether the government plans to scrap the new rules or is open to holding public consultations and debate them in the parliament.