Islamabad, Pakistan – In a new letter to the Pakistani prime minister, tech giants Google, Facebook and others have called for “critical changes” to recently passed Pakistani internet regulations that expand censorship and allow widespread surveillance without judicial oversight.
The letter, dated December 5 but shared with reporters on Wednesday, details the main concerns of the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), which represents Google, Facebook, Twitter and others in the region, regarding new Internet regulations adopted on last month.
“AIC members are alarmed by the scope of Pakistan’s new rules, as well as the opaque process by which these rules were finalized,” the letter read.
A version of the new regulation was first adopted in February but was quickly quashed by Prime Minister Imran Khan after an outcry from rights groups and tech companies. Khan promised there would be an inclusive consultative process to change the regulations.
The AIC, digital rights activists and social media company executives, however, told Al Jazeera that such a process never happened. A new version of the rules was adopted and implemented in November, with some changes from the original regulation.
On December 1, the government revised the rules once again, to remove a clause that barred criticism of the federal and provincial government or any public office holder after rights groups decried the move as authoritarian.
The new AIC letter referred to the decision to revise the rules last week without consultations or formal processes as problematic.
“Industry players have therefore lost confidence in the consultation process because it is neither credible nor transparent,” reads the letter.
Internet use in Pakistan is regulated under the Electronic Crime Prevention Act (PECA), a far-reaching law passed in 2016 that legalized internet censorship based on general concepts, including others, “the security and defense of Pakistan”, “the glory of Islam” or “public order, decency or morality”.
The new regulations aim to systematize the way in which content is blocked in Pakistan, requiring online platforms to remove any content requested by Pakistani authorities within 24 hours. In some cases, this period is reduced to six hours.
Businesses – whether local or foreign – that fail to comply with Pakistani government withdrawal requests or data surveillance could face fines of up to $ 3.14 million, according to regulations.
The new regulations also force large social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and others with more than half a million users in Pakistan to establish offices and data servers in the country, a move to which tech companies have resisted.
“The data location requirements in the Rules will prevent Pakistani citizens from accessing a free and open Internet and shut off Pakistan’s digital economy to the rest of the world,” the letter from AIC read.
The rules also require all tech companies to share decrypted user data with warrantless authorities, a clause that rights groups and tech companies say violates human rights standards.
Companies must provide “any information or data or content or sub-content contained in any information system owned or managed or managed by the [company] in decrypted, readable and understandable format or in a simple version ”, according to the rules.
“[T]The powers of the PTA were excessively extended, which allowed them to force social media companies to violate established human rights standards on privacy and freedom of expression, ”the report read. letter from AIC.
The Pakistani government says it is open to further consultations with stakeholders. Last week, Pakistan’s information technology minister told Al Jazeera that the government would maintain content bans but was open to continuing dialogue with business.
“The Pakistani government will not tolerate three things in any form,” Amin-ul-Haque told Al Jazeera. “Hate speech, number one. The second is anti-state content, and the third is vulgarity. “