Regulations to make operations ‘extremely difficult’: tech firms

Updated February 17, 2020

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Ask govt to consider negative impact of new rules on Pakistan’s economy. — AFP/File
Ask govt to consider negative impact of new rules on Pakistan’s economy. — AFP/File

KARACHI: The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has warned the government that its new rules on online regulation will make it extremely difficult for digital companies to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses.

The AIC is an industry association that comprises leading internet and technology companies, namely Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, AirBnb, Apple, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Grab, LinkedIn, LINE, Rakuten and Yahoo (Oath).

The response comes after the government notified rules, titled ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’ that outline extensive guidelines for social media companies on content regulation and engagement with Pakistan, including directives to establish a permanent office in the federal capital, record and store data within the national boundaries for citizen data privacy, and comply with government requests for removal of content irrespective of the company’s regulation policies.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan, AIC managing director Jeff Paine expressed concern that unless revoked, “these rules would severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy”.

Ask govt to consider negative impact of new rules on Pakistan’s economy

The letter, dated Feb 15, is also copied to federal Minister for Law and Justice Farogh Naseem, the minister for information technology and telecommunication, and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) chairman retired Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa.

“AIC members recognise Pakistan’s strong potential, but the sudden announcement of these rules belies the government of Pakistan’s claims that it is open for business and investment. In fact, the rules as currently written would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses,” it stated.

The AIC pointed out that as no other country had announced such a “sweeping set of rules”, Pakistan risked becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving its users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy.

The internet coalition noted that Pakistan released the rules without any consultation or input from stakeholders outside the government. “The way in which these rules were passed is causing international companies to re-evaluate their view of the regulatory environment in Pakistan, and their willingness to operate in the country,” it said. The digital companies observed that the rules were vague and arbitrary in nature — a result of the absence of public consultation.

The lack of such discussion was problematic given that the rules demanded that social media companies deviated from established human rights practices concerning user privacy and freedom of expression. “Therefore, we strongly urge the government of Pakistan to initiate a proper public consultation to ensure wider participation to develop a new set of rules,” it stressed.

The AIC members said they wished to better understand the motivations and concerns underlying this proposal, so that they could work collaboratively with the government on solutions.

The AIC noted it recognised that governments around the world were considering how best to deal with illegal and problematic online content. It said there was a shared agreement among governments about letting people create, communicate, and find information online, while preventing people from misusing content-sharing platforms like social media, messaging, voice or video calling applications.

“Therefore, AIC 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 said.

Global comparison

The AIC said it was important to note that many of the ambitious conversations in this area were the subject of in-depth, evidence-based, and lengthy policy research and exchanges, where a panoply of policy solutions are being explored rather than a single, blunt legislative route.

In the UK, for example, the Online Harms White Paper was released over a year ago, following months of early exploration by civil servants and the stakeholder community, the AIC members pointed out.

“Rather than rushing to legislate at this stage, the UK government is recommending a series of further studies, to ascertain the methods to tackle online harms most effectively in practice. It is also important to note that the UK’s efforts on online harms are focused on specific areas of child abuse and hate speech, rather than a very wide interpretation of online harms, which would have risked confusion and ineffectiveness through lack of prioritisation,” it explained.

The coalition said it also understood that some within the government of Pakistan had drawn parallels between the Rules and Vietnam’s Law on Cyber Security.

“It’s important to note, however, that while Vietnam’s parliament approved the Law on Cyber Security in June 2018, it has not yet been implemented,” it said, adding that a broad range of governments, industry and civil society groups had expressed grave concerns with the law and Vietnam’s proposed implementing regulations (which have not been finalised or approved).

‘Not against regulation’

The AIC said it was not against regulation of social media, and acknowledged that Pakistan already had an extensive legislative framework governing online content. However, it regretted, these rules failed to address crucial issues such as internationally recognised rights to individual expression and privacy. They also contravene the legislative enactments under which the government of Pakistan has framed them.

Neither the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act, nor the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (Peca) envisioned the broad powers granted through these rules. On the contrary, Peca granted safe harbour protection to intermediaries or social media platforms, the letter stated.

“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 letter concluded. The AIC firms hoped to have the opportunity to share more detailed feedback with the authorities in the near future.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2020