Pakistan's new internet rules alarm politicians and activists

Expanded regulatory powers seen as a threat to nation's digital economy and freedom of speech

In this image made from UNTV video, Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi, Prime Minister of Pakistan, speaks in a pre-recorded message which was played during the U.N. General Assembly's special session to discuss the response to COVID-19 and the best path to recovery from the pandemic, Thursday, Dec. 3,2020, at UN headquarters, in New York. (UNTV via AP)

Sweeping new powers for Pakistan's government to block or remove internet content it deems harmful to the country were condemned as an attack on freedom of speech and the media.

The government says the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 passed in October will curb hate speech, anti-state content and vulgarity.

But opposition leaders and activists fear state regulators will use the rules to issue blanket bans on content and platforms, maintain a stranglehold on tech companies and further silence journalists and dissent.

The expansion of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority's powers follows a wave of government intimidation against journalists, the press and broadcasters, which has left much of the country's media largely cowed.

Tech leaders including Google and Facebook also voiced alarm, warning Prime Minister Imran Khan that the law risks driving them away from the country and hobbling its plans to build a digital economy.

At one stage the rules even included a clause outlawing criticism of the government and its officials. While that was removed, the remaining powers still allow the regulator wide scope to act against content it judges to undermine Islam, Pakistan's “integrity, security, or defence”, or its “religious, cultural or ethnical sensitivities”.

Large tech platforms will also be required to set up registered offices in Pakistan, keep data servers in the country and share users' unencrypted information.

The new law's vague language gives vast scope to the PTA to act as judge, jury and executioner on the legality of online content, said Usama Khilji, founder of the Bolo Bhi internet freedom campaign group.

“Precedents seen in the form of cases against journalists and activists, blocking of a political party website, and transparency reports of internet companies show these powers are likely to be abused widely,” he said.

Traditional media companies have been harassed by threats to advertising revenue, or being taken off air. Dissenting reporters have been blacklisted. Journalists whose social media posts the government or military deemed offensive were hauled before courts, or even kidnapped off the streets and threatened.

Sen Sherry Rehman, parliamentary leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, said the new rules were “an egregious violation of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech and the right to the internet”.

She said: “This amounts to a further curtailment of free speech and tightens the circle of censorship already on media and civil society. The government wants access to citizens' data from digital platforms, which clearly suggests it wants to further censor and block content.”

An industry body that includes the world's largest digital brands wrote to the prime minister earlier this month to voice their concerns.

The Asia Internet Coalition accused the government of going back on promises to consult over the legislation.

A December 5 letter seen by The National says the coalition has "serious concerns" and the new rules "would make it extremely difficult for AIC members to make their platforms and services available to Pakistani users and businesses".

The group also said that large sections of the legislation were unworkable and said it “considerably expands PTA’s powers, allowing them to force social media companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression”.

The PTA denied accusations that it did not consult the AIC. A statement issued by the regulator also said the new rules would not affect business and that they preserved the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

“PTA wishes to dispel the prejudiced and wrong impression being created regarding the rules," it said. “It is reiterated that the rules in no sense aim to harm the business environment in Pakistan. Rather they would pave the way for better investment opportunities for tech companies while remaining compliant with local laws.”