WASHINGTON: US top diplomat for South Asia Alice Wells has expressed concerns over the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) government’s new social media policy, saying “new restrictions could be a setback to freedom of expression and development of digital economy”.
The new law – Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 – requires all social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to register within three months and establish their offices in Islamabad.
They will have to create a data server in Pakistan within a year and block any account or prevent or remove any content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic or national security sensitivities of Pakistan” and is “involved in spreading of fake news or defamation”.
It will be the government’s prerogative to identify objectionable content to the social media platforms to be taken down. In case of failure to comply within 15 days, it will have the power to suspend digital media companies’ services or impose a fine worth up to Rs500 million.
The new rules have sparked a controversy with many claiming that the Prime Minister Imran Khan-led government would use it as a tool to stifle criticism of its policies under the premise of national security.
“Unfortunate if Pakistan discourages foreign investors & stifles domestic innovation in such a dynamic sector. Encourage discussion w/[with] stakeholders,” said Wells in a tweet from her official handle on Tuesday.
New restrictions on social media platforms in #Pakistan could be setback to freedom of expression & development of digital econ. Unfortunate if Pakistan discourages foreign investors & stifles domestic innovation in such a dynamic sector. Encourage discussion w/ stakeholders. AGW
— State_SCA (@State_SCA) February 25, 2020
Initially, the government defended its social media policy maintaining that the new laws amid at protecting citizens from online harms and later decided to review it policy amid the outcry.
The US diplomat’s statement comes a day after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) had issued notice to the federation, and law, information and technology ministries in a petition challenging social media policy.
The petitioner’s counsel Jahangir Khan Jadoon maintained that the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 violated Article 19 and 19 (a) of the Constitution. He termed it an attempt by the government to stifle dissent and free speech.