Internet and technology companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google have threatened to leave Pakistan after its government granted blanket powers to authorities to censor digital content. Critics say Pakistan’s move was aimed at curtailing freedom of expression in the conservative Islamic nation.
The warning issued on 19 November by the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents global technology giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter, follows the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan‘s granting of enhanced powers to government media regulators the previous day.
The coalition of companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google said 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 mediums like Facebook and Twitter, search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo or internet service providers face a fine of up to $ 3.14 million in Pakistan for failure to curb the sharing of content deemed to be defamatory of Islam, promoting terrorism, hate speech, pornography or any content viewed as endangering national security.
Social media companies are required to provide Pakistan’s designated investigation agency with any information or data in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format. Pakistan wants the social media companies to have their offices in the country.
The coalition said the “draconian data localization requirements will damage the ability of people to access a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world.” It said the new rules would make it difficult for its members “to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses”.
There was no immediate comment from Khan’s government, which has repeatedly said it was not against freedom of expression.
Khan’s office had previously said that the Pakistan government had made the new rules 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 into power.
Under the new regulations, companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google must remove or block any unlawful content from their websites within 24 hours after being reported by authorities.
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.