Big Tech Threatens to Leave Pakistan

Big tech companies formed a united front in February to push back against censorship policy, however, this is November, these companies are still threatening to all leave because reports suggest the Pakistan government is now bent on implementing new censorship policies.

Image Credit: Axios

It was in February when the Pakistani government announced they would implement new rules for social media companies to regulate how these companies would be governed in the country; the rules titled, “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules 2020”, have all been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca) and it will give regulators the power to demand the takedown of a wide range content.

This was obviously a new development for social media companies and Google, as these companies have always been the ones responsible for what is allowed on their platform.

Expectedly there was an immediate pushback then by these big tech companies with these companies under the guise of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) wrote a letter to the Pakistan Government which shows their position against the rule and threaten to leave the country if it is implemented as they strongly believe the new rule will stop them from being able to render their services.

This might be understood as the new regulations, formally known as the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, expects social media services must remove or block content within 24 hours of a request from a newly appointed officer, called the national coordinator and these companies must also prevent the live-streaming of any type of content the authorities say is objectionable and label as “false” anything the government deems to be so with these companies also mandated to open permanent offices in Islamabad(the capital of Pakistan) and set physical data centers in the country and that violations of the law are subject to fines of more than $3 million, with the authorities even empowered to block services entirely.

Hence, it’s no surprise these companies formed a united front in February to push back against the policy, however, this is November and these companies are still threatening to all leave because reports suggest the government is now bent on implementing these new policies.

Although Pakistan officials have denied these new policies are meant to restrict citizen’s freedom of speech and that it is just a move meant to ensure the government protects the cultural, social, and religious values of the country, it still points to the fact that the government sees these social media giants as platforms really beginning to influence the decisions of people as most governments in the world are even beginning to see these platforms as a threat to their power because more and more people have been able to voice their dissent against bad governance to the rest of the world via these social media giants.

These recent censorship issues big tech companies are experiencing is beginning to seem like a troublesome pattern — the Nigerian government is also seriously considering censoring comments on social media platforms, Vietnam passed a similar cybersecurity law with what Pakistan is proposing and even India is expected to unveil new censorship guidelines for platforms like WhatsApp who use end-to-end encryption — and the recent court hearing for Twitter and Facebook in the USA is another testament, even in the USA these big tech social media companies are not all that safe and are also under scrutiny. Hence, one has to wonder what is really happening, and why are these social media giants having censorship issues?

Social Media Giants & Censorship: What is Happening?

Everyone knew the internet and the freedom of expression it gives everyone, would one day seep through every aspect of our lives but no one might have foreseen this level of adoption; even religious bodies are beginning to have social media groups despite being previously reluctant, businesses and government institutions are all advised to be active on social media so they can engage their audience or potential customers and almost every young citizen with an internet-enabled phone, is either on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, the adoption is massive and mind-blowing with people very conscious of their online personality and some highly rating their online personality and paying close attention to it.

The degree of freedom and connection these social media platform has given everyone is just wonderful, people make friends of different races all over the world and learn about cultures and ideas from others in various parts of the world and this sort of cultural and ideological transference might be the major reason why many governments are beginning to clamor for social media censorship.

It is important to note that the censorship issues that companies like Facebook and Twitter are facing in the USA are due to the just concluded USA election because of issues around the possibility of suppressing free speech and not necessarily similar to those they face in most other countries (although the USA governments are also clamoring for stricter anti-trust rules against all its big tech companies). In most countries, just like Pakistan, the actions from the government against these companies have been due to the fears around the influence these companies are having on their societies.

In highly conservative societies like Pakistan, the ability of social media users to interact with a lot of other citizens in more liberal societies have supposedly affected these countries in certain ways:

Firstly, citizens of countries like Pakistan or Nigeria notice the difference in democratic rule in their countries and other liberal countries and some believe that they should actually be benefits from such supposed better democracy as was made evident in the recent #ENDSARS protest in Nigeria with the Nigerian government also pointing to the influence of the social media as its citizens demanded better governance and an end to police brutality.

Secondly, most of these countries are built on the core foundation of religion or morality, and the way they address older adults and government officials usually tend to reflect these core values as younger folks or citizens are meant to be more inhibitive in how they express their opinions but in more liberal societies respect is not signaled by inhibiting your speech and citizens are allowed to air their discontent as they like.

Hence, citizens of these more conservative societies are also beginning to emulate such free speech and call for accountability, and according to these governments as reflected by the recent outburst by a Government House representative In Nigeria, Desmond Elliot, Social Media is supposedly making the recent generation of young Nigerians disrespectful; therefore, the issue of censorship is built around the government fear that it would be difficult to “control’ their citizens if they do not restrict how these platforms can be used; hence most have called for censorship against hate speech or derogatory remarks against the government, as they try to curb the supposedly excessive use of these platforms.

Another issue is the government’s concern around data privacy which is portrayed by the recent European Council meeting intending to ban end-to-end encryption on apps that use them as the government believes that such technology impedes the judiciary arm of the government in their fight against terrorism and crime, but as I even pointed in one of my articles, asides the previously stated reason that it impedes the fight against crime and terrorism, important technologies like end-to-end encryption can sometimes make the government look “weak” as no government is comfortable with anything that completely bypasses them no matter the benefit it might supposedly have.

Therefore, although there are many reasons — including those I have highlighted- why governments are beginning to fight for censorship or restrictions against global tech giants, the underlying issue is the control of power, as many governments around the world are beginning to notice the supposed power these social media giants are giving citizens and also these companies are becoming more and more powerful themselves.

It’s No Surprise They Are Sticking Together

It’s very rare to see these big tech giants sticking together as they all see themselves as competitors but with the recent rule by the Pakistan government, the tech giants affected (Facebook, Twitter, and Google), all came together to agree that they would all leave the country if such a rule is implemented, a move that has suddenly made the Government’s decision a harder one to implement as a lot of bodies and NGOs have all been speaking against the move and showing how it will destroy the tech economy of the country and can also affect their economy at large.

It’s actually no surprise that these companies are sticking together and it might actually be the new norm to the surprise of everyone; its actually expected when you consider the fact that just in 2020 the major Big tech four tech companies have all appeared in front of the USA government as they are being probed for monopolistic actions while on the other hand, Social Media Giants Facebook and Twitter are also currently under review for their recent censorship of posts and tweets regarding the just-concluded USA election.

Is big tech in trouble? Will this be the biggest test for these powerful private firms? Is there a power tussle going on between world governments and these private tech giants? The signs suggest that governments are becoming wary of the power that these companies have and might be ready to do anything to reduce the grip these companies have over their citizens and I won’t be surprised if we see more collaboration among these big tech companies, especially social media companies as this might be their biggest test.

Big Tech Threatens to Leave Pakistan was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.