February 9, 2021 – The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has submitted a letter to the Attorney General of Pakistan, Mr. Khalid Jawed Khan, on February 8 in response to his comment in Islamabad High Court (IHC) on January 25 expressing agreement to review the Social Media Rules in light of all the criticism received.
In the letter, the AIC which represents 12 leading technology companies including Airbnb, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon among others, welcomes the Attorney General’s statement regarding the consultation on the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguard) Rules, 2020, during a hearing on multiple petitions against the said Rules in IHC. In addition, the letter also highlights the worrying procedure that the Rules were notified through, and states that the current version gives sweeping powers to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) over users’ data and sets unworkable conditions of data localisation on the social media platforms which will put citizens’ rights to privacy and free speech at risk of being violated.
Referring to the December 2020 letter submitted to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT), PTA and Prime Minister, the AIC letter reiterates that the current version of the Rules will make it difficult for the member companies to offer its services in Pakistan.
“Instead of clarifying the scope of the powers given to the PTA, these rules create further confusion for both users and online platforms in Pakistan. Large portions of the Rules are not only unworkable for global internet platforms, they go beyond the scope of the parent act (PECA 2016), putting their legality into question,” the letter states, adding that, “the data localization requirements in the Rules will prevent Pakistani citizens from accessing a free and open internet and shut Pakistan’s digital economy off from the rest of the world.”
The Attorney General, in its statement to Chief Justice Athar Minallah in IHC on January 25, said that the government has agreed to review the Rules in light of the criticism. He also agreed that blocking of any social media platform is not the solution to any problem, and informed the Court that the Government was ready to consult all the stakeholders in order to review the social media rules.
The AIC letter hinted that the new consultation process must not follow the previous process that the authorities had adopted to notify the Rules, instead, it emphasises “the Government to work with industry on practical, clear rules that protect the benefits of the internet and keep people safe from harm. The AIC and its members have made a number of offers to undertake this partnership previously and we reiterate to you today this commitment.”
The letter further mentions that the government “ensure[s] that the basic principles of meaningful consultation are upheld through a clear consultation framework, timeline and plan. In order to instill trust in the policy making and consultation process, we hope the government will share updated drafts with stakeholders for feedback, incorporate proposals and inputs, reflect changes in each iteration, and issue explanatory memos on provisions and changes made in each draft.”
The IHC on January 25 had directed the Attorney General to hold said consultations before the next hearing which is scheduled for February 26. The Attorney General reassured the Court that the report presented in the hearing will take into account the recommendation made by all parties. Plans for consultation with stakeholders have not yet been announced despite less than a month left in the hearing.
In its December 2020 letter to the Prime Minister, the AIC expressed concerns on the Cabinet notification on the Rules and said that the broad-based consultation the PM had promised never occurred, and said that the industry stakeholders have lost trust in the consultation process because it is neither credible nor transparent.