KARACHI: United Sta­tes chief diplomat for South Asian affairs Alice Wells has termed the new restrictions on social media platforms in Pakistan a “setback” for freedom of expression and development of digital economy.

In a memo dated Jan 28, the federal cabinet approved the 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.

“New restrictions on social media platforms in #Pakistan could be setback to freedom of expression & development of digital econ. Unfortunate if Pakis­tan discourages foreign investors & stifles domestic innovation in such a dynamic sector. Encourage discussion w/ stakeholders,” Alice Wells wrote in a tweet posted on the official account of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs on Tuesday.

On Feb 15, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group of internet companies, including giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google — wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, warning him that new rules to regulate social media activity would make it “extremely difficult” for digital companies to operate in Pakistan.

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

The group 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 Pakistani users and businesses of the growth potential of the internet economy.

Besides the AIC, the move drew criticism from all quarters, as critics voiced concern that 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’.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists have urged the government to reconsider its decision.

Amid criticism, Prime Minister Khan said “all stakeholders” would be taken on board before implementing the new rules.

He expressed the hope that all international social media and internet companies would continue to work in Pakistan and the government would address their grievances.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020