Google, Facebook and Twitter threaten to exit Pakistan over new censorship law

Internet and technology companies have threatened to take an exit from Pakistan, after the government’s decision to grant extensive powers to state authorities for censoring digital content, a move that critics say was aimed at curtailing freedom of expression in the conservative Islamic nation.

Thursday’s warning came from the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents global technology giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter. It was received after the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan granted enhanced powers to government media regulators on Wednesday.

Under the new regulations, social media companies or internet service providers are liable to pay a fine of up to $3.14 million for failure to curb the sharing of content assessed to be defamatory of Islam, promoting terrorism, hate speech, pornography or any content viewed as endangering national security.

It is mandatory for social media companies to furnish Pakistan’s designated investigation agency “with any information or data in a decrypted, readable and comprehensible format,” according to Pakistan’s DAWN newspaper. Pakistan also wants social media companies to set their base in the country.

It is not the first time, these tech giants have publicly expressed their concerns over the new law, which was proposed by Khan’s ministry in February this year. After the Pakistani government made the proposal earlier this year, the group had expressed their decision to leave, a move that made the nation step back and promise an extensive and broad-based consultation process with civil society and tech companies. Pakistan has about 75 million internet users.

“The draconian data localization requirements will damage the ability of people to access free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world. It’s chilling to see the PTA’s powers expanded, allowing them to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression,” the group said in a statement.

“The rules would make it extremely difficult for AIC Members to make their services available to Pakistani users and businesses. If Pakistan wants to be an attractive destination for technology investment and realise its goal of digital transformation, we urge the Government to work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect the benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm,” it further stated.

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