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Social Media Policy May Hinder Freedom of Expression: State Department

by Newsweek Pakistan
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Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP

In tweet, senior American diplomat urges Islamabad to initiate discussions with stakeholders or risk impacts on digital economy

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday joined the chorus of voices expressing concern about the new social media policy unveiled by the Government of Pakistan earlier this month.

In a tweet signed by Alice Wells, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Washington hit out at the social media restrictions approved by Pakistan’s federal cabinet.

“New restrictions on social media platforms in Pakistan could be setback to freedom of expression and development of digital economy,” it said. “Unfortunate if Pakistan discourages foreign investors and stifles domestic innovation in such a dynamic sector. Encourage discussion with stakeholders,” it added.

Under the new social media policy, all companies designated as social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Whatsapp, would be required to set up local offices in Islamabad and appoint local representatives to liaise with a government-appointed ‘National Coordinator’ in Pakistan. In addition, they would need to set up data servers in Pakistan, remove content deemed offensive within hours of being notified about it, and provide law enforcement authorities with unencrypted access to user accounts and content.

Under the controversial policy, the authority would have the prerogative to identify objectionable content and any company does not comply would risk fines of up to Rs. 500 million or outright bans in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government, which has formulated the draconian rules, has defended its actions as a “necessary measure” to regulate social media companies. “We cannot leave these websites completely unregulated,” Special Assistant to the P.M. on Information Firdous Ashiq Awan said earlier this month. “These laws have been made to facilitate social media,” she claimed, despite non-governmental organizations raising the alarm that it would primarily target freedom of expression.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a grouping of international firms that include Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo, has meanwhile responded to the new social media policy by saying it would have negative impacts on Pakistan’s digital economy.

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