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Asia Internet Coalition Urges Pakistan to Reconsider Social Media Policy

by Staff Report

Chandan Khanna—AFP

In letter addressed to P.M. Khan, the grouping of major internet companies says rules will ‘cripple’ growth of Pakistan’s digital economy

The Asia Internet Coalition, a grouping of international firms that include Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo, has responded to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government’s social media rules, saying it belies the “Government of Pakistan’s claims that it is open for business and investment.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan, AIC Managing Director Jeff Paine shared his organization’s “initial views” on the Citizens Protection Rules (Against Online Harm) that was approved by the federal cabinet last week. “Unless revoked, these rules will severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy,” it says, adding that while AIC members recognize Pakistan’s strong potential, the framing of these rules without any consultation from stakeholders “belies the Government of Pakistan’s claims that it is open for business and investment.”

Additionally, the AIC warned, if the rules were not amended or revoked, it “would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.” It said that no other country has announced such sweeping rules, which risks turning Pakistan into a “global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy.”

According to the AIC, the rules as written are “vague and arbitrary in nature, which is a result of the absence of public consultation.” It notes the rules demand “social media companies deviate from established human rights practices concerning user privacy and freedom of expression.”

Acknowledging that governments around the world are currently striving to figure out how to deal with problematic and illegal content online, the AIC said that it’s 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 urged the Government of Pakistan to initiate a public consultation process so a new set of rules could be developed after taking all stakeholders’ concerns into consideration.

Referring to the U.K.’s Online Harms White Paper, which has been used by some in Pakistan’s government to defend its rules, the AIC noted that it was released after months of consultations. “The U.K. government released on Feb. 12, 2020 its response to the consultation on the White Paper, which clarified a number of points, starting with an emphasis on the respect of fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, the importance of transparency, and clarity and certainty for business,” it said, adding that even still the U.K.’s efforts were focused on specific areas of child abuse and hate speech, rather than a very wide interpretation of online harms.

“We also understand that some within the Government of Pakistan have drawn parallels between the Rules and Vietnam’s Law on Cybersecurity,” it says. “It’s important to note, however, that while Vietnam’s Parliament approved the Law on Cybersecurity in June 2018, it has not yet been implemented. What’s more, a broad range of governments, industry and civil society groups have expressed grave concerns with the law and Vietnam’s proposed implementing regulations.”

The AIC letter says that its members are not against regulating social media, but the rules laid down by the PTI government “fail to address crucial issues such as internationally recognized rights to individual expression and privacy.” It also questions the legal backing for these rules. “Neither the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, nor the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) envision the broad powers granted through these Rules. On the contrary, PECA grants safe harbor protection to intermediaries or social media platforms,” it adds.

The letter concluded by urging the Government of Pakistan to consider the potential consequences of the rules in order to prevent unexpected negative impacts on Pakistan’s economy.

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