Internet group condemns lack of transparency in formulation of Pakistan’s digital policy

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) which includes global digital media behemoths released a statement in which it denounced the process through which the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules” formerly known as the “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules” were formulated.

AIC said the lack of transparency conflicts with the Prime Minister’s February statement that urged the consultation committee to “undertake extensive and broad-based consultation” with all relevant stakeholders.

AIC and its members are committed to helping Pakistan realize its digital economy ambitions. Our members have invested significantly in supporting public health, digital literacy, and economic growth in the country.

However, this process calls into question the government’s commitment to public-private dialogue that is needed to realise Pakistan’s digital policy goals.

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It is also causing international companies to re-evaluate their view of the regulatory environment in Pakistan, as well as their willingness to operate in the country.

We strongly urge the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication to reconsider its approach in working with Industry and to adopt policy approaches that will support, not impede, the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy.
We request that the Ministry release the latest version of the Rules. We also request that the Government hold the “extensive and broad-based consultation process” that the Prime Minister himself called for.

The new law – Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 – required all social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to register within three months and establish their offices in Islamabad.

According to the law, social media platforms will have to create a data server in Pakistan within a year and block any account or prevent or remove any content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic or national security sensitivities of Pakistan” and is “involved in spreading of fake news or defamation”.

“The Rules demand that social media companies deviate from established human rights practices concerning user privacy and freedom of expression,” the AIC noted in a letter addressed to the PM in February. 

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In the meantime Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been on a blocking spree, banning websites and apps in the country.

Recently the authority blocked access to five dating/live streaming applications including Tinder and Grinder alongside banning and then unbanning TikTok in efforts to clamp down on what it calls “immoral, obscene and vulgar” content.

The AIC –consists of Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and others are committed to helping revolutionise its digital landscape however, the lack of transparency and recently blocking off app conflicts with the Prime Minister’s February statement that urged the consultation committee to “undertake extensive and broad-based consultation” with all relevant stakeholders. 

Pakistan’s recently passed social media and digital laws have been widely criticized by rights activists as being draconian because of the sweeping powers they give authorities.

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