KARACHI: Governments over the past years have attempted to have social media companies maintain an on-ground presence in Pakistan.

They employed a carrot-and-stick approach — offering incentives of increased revenue and, when that failed, drafting legislation to force them into opening offices.

Over the years, officials clai­m­­ed multiple times that compan­ies have agreed to establish their presence in Pakistan, but nothing substantial came out of it.

Last month, it was reported that Google has decided to open a liaison or representative office in Pakistan.

The move was unlike the past claims, as the California, US-based search engine giant also obtained a registration certificate from the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP).

The government believes that the office will be established — most likely in Karachi — within the next few weeks.

Govt sees the move as a game changer, but experts are wary

For IT and Telecom Minister Syed Aminul Haque, this was the result of his ministry’s efforts spanning over three years.

Talking to Dawn, Mr Haque said the government had devised social media rules in 2020 and 2021 after taking local and international stakeholders on board.

The rules — Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, and Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 — mandated social media companies with over 500,000 followers to open an office in Pakistan within six months.

The rules were severely criticised and the Islam­abad High Court ordered the government to revise them.

Now, the mandatory timeline of six months has been removed and the drafts are in the final phase of revision, the minister said.

What to expect?

The government initially wants Google to establish liaison offices in Karachi and Islamabad, Mr Haque told Dawn.

He said that as things progress, further developments will follow, like maintaining a larger team and the relocation of servers.

However, experts believe that expecting anything more than a liaison office would be far-fetched at this moment.

“I expect this to be a minimal-presence liaison office,” said Habibullah Khan, founder and CEO of Penumbra, a Karachi-based experience design studio. “I expect them [Google] to take their time opening the office, hiring a few people and very gradually increasing to a full-fledged office. They will drag it as long as they can.”

For Mr Khan, this was a “strategic move” as Google was “facing the pressure of consequen­ces” and decided to open the office.

Google was contacted but the company did not have an immediate comment on the developments and the nature of the office.

Concerns

As the government presents the move as a success, there are widespread concerns about how the a company’s local office will embolden the government to stifle free speech and increase its ability to remove content.

The IT minister said the government seeks the removal of only three types of content: anti-Pakistan, anti-Islam and pornography. “We convinced them [Google] that local presence will help better negotiate on these issues.”

Digital rights expert Asad Beyg said it was yet to be seen if the social media companies are being covered under rules that were framed to force them to come to Pakistan.

In that case, Mr Beyg said, Pakistan only needs to look towards its neighbour India where the BJP-led government managed to exert control over social media companies like Twitter after threatening them with criminal liability under the law.

“If these companies operate in Pakistan, it has to be seen under what laws they are regulated,” he said.

However, the IT minister dismissed the possibility of a blanket ban and said he “staunchly” opposed any such move that hampers progress.

Citing the ban on YouTube in 2012, the minister said it caused “irreparable” damage to Pakistan’s digital economy.

The ban — for allegedly hosting blasphemous content — also led to legal complications for Google, which owns the video platform.

When the ban was challenged in the Lahore High Court, Google was ordered to send its representative for proceedings. However, the company refused to comply with the orders.

Yasser Latif Hamdani, who represented the petitioner (NGO Bytes for All) in the case, said he was surprised that Google decided to “submit itself to Pakistani laws”.

He told Dawn that under the laws, Google would be asked to censor content, at least to the extent of Pakistan, which will result in a legal dilemma.

“For example, will Google censor websites that describe Ahmadis as Muslim?” he asked, adding that with its presence in Pakistan, Google will be opening itself up to prosecution.

Benefits for businesses, creators

The IT minister said that a localised Google would also benefit Pakistani creators and businesses.

He claimed that creators would “multiply” their revenue and even start earning in dollars which would boost not only the digital economy but also the overall economy of the country.

However, the minister’s enthusiasm failed to find traction among experts and local content creators.

For Mr Khan of Penumbra, the benefits for Pakistan are “absolutely none”. He said that Google earns $150m-300m a year from Pakistan in ad revenue and over $30m from App Store and cloud revenue.

The company gives back around $70m to large publishers, almost all of whom manage holding companies outside Pakistan.

For content creators as well, the hope of any increase in their revenue will be a fallacy.

Talking to Dawn, comedian and YouTuber Junaid Akram said the only foreseeable benefit for local creators was a “single-point” line of communication in case of any dispute or monetisation issues.

The few benefits Mr Khan sees are purely “strategic”.

“Pakistan needs to digitise government and some strategic revenue value chains like taxes. By having a firm but fair relationship, Pakistan has the leverage to get concessions from Google on strategic support for digitisation,” he explained.

“This can extend to supporting innovation in local start-up ecosystem by providing cloud credits and other support.”

Published in Dawn, january 1st, 2023

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