New social media regulations could hamper freedom of expression, digital economy: Alice Wells

February 25, 2020

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Chief US diplomat for South Asian affairs, Alice Wells, called on Pakistan to discuss the matter with all stakeholders concerned. — AP/File
Chief US diplomat for South Asian affairs, Alice Wells, called on Pakistan to discuss the matter with all stakeholders concerned. — AP/File

Chief US diplomat for South Asian affairs, Alice Wells, on Tuesday expressed concern over the Pakistan government's new social media regulations, adding that they "could be a setback to freedom of expression and development of digital economy".

Taking to Twitter, she stated: "Unfortunate if Pakistan discourages foreign investors and stifles domestic innovation in such a dynamic sector. Encourage discussion with stakeholders."

On February 12, the federal cabinet had approved a set of rules to regulate social media in the country, under which social media companies will be obliged to disclose any information or data to a designated investigation agency, when sought, and failure to abide by any of the provisions will entail a fine of up to Rs500 million.

The information to be provided may include subscriber information, traffic data or content data.

Under the rules, social media platforms will be required to remove any ‘unlawful content’ pointed out to them in writing or electronically signed email within 24 hours, and in emergency cases within six hours.

These firms will have to establish registered offices with a physical address located in Islamabad within the next three months. These companies will also be required to appoint a Pakistan-based focal person for coordination with the relevant authorities within three months and establish one or more database servers in Pakistan within 12 months to record and store data and online content.

The move drew criticism from all quarters, as critics voiced the concern the curbs would enable the designated authorities to control freedom of expression and opinion under the guise of protecting ‘religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities’.

Responding to the uproar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan had defended the policy, stating that the new rules had been created for the protection of citizens.

"There was no mechanism that protected our citizens' interests [... or] our national integrity," she had said, adding that after the enactment of the new policy, social media companies would be mindful of hurting Pakistan's national interests.

The new rules, Awan had said, would not only expose Pakistan's opponents but would also enable authorities to stop extremists who spread hate on the basis of religion and race.