For three days starting February 3, the internet’s go-to, volunteer-driven encyclopedia, Wikipedia, was banned in Pakistan after it failed to comply with the national telecommunications regulator’s requests to remove what it had deemed “blasphemous content.”
The development was a grim reminder of an earlier ban on YouTube by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). It had lasted from 2012 to 2016, and left the country’s creator economy in shambles. Though the Wikipedia ban was reversed within 72 hours, Pakistani tech investors and activists told Rest of World that such a move sends a “dangerous” message to the world, and could drive away foreign investors or multinational companies.
“Given where Pakistan is, and given all the macroeconomic instability, we’re very far away from the heights that we saw in the startup ecosystem in 2021. I think people are looking for excuses not to invest [in Pakistan],” Kalsoom Lakhani, co-founder and general partner at Pakistan-focused early-stage fund i2i Ventures, told Rest of World.
Ahmer Jamil Khan, a lawyer, told Rest of World that “blocking a resource like Wikipedia puts out a very dangerous signal.” In 2014, Khan had led a group of 23 students to take the Pakistani government to court over its ban on YouTube. “It tells the world, this country is not serious about a lot of things, and policy decisions are being taken by inexperienced officials,” he said.
YouTube had been banned in Pakistan after an ”anti-Islam” film was uploaded to the platform. The ban was revoked after the Google-owned company launched a localized version that allows the government to demand removal of any content it considers objectionable.
Since the passing of Pakistan’s cybercrime law in 2016, many other tech platforms, including TikTok, PUBG, Tinder, and Grindr, have faced bans in the world’s fifth most populous nation. With time, the PTA’s ability to impose bans has also grown stronger.
In 2021, the PTA’s powers were expanded through a set of new regulations that “require” all internet service providers and social media companies to break encryption and share user data with government investigators. The platforms are expected to register with the PTA and appoint a compliance officer by January 2022. The regulations also require social media companies to remove or block access to content in compliance with PTA directives, failing which they could be fined 500 million rupees ($1.9 million).
The PTA’s attempts to enact censorship are legitimized by the country’s cybercrimes law that grants it authority to block access to content against “interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court.”
“The criteria … such as decency and morality, are highly subjective, and often result in patriarchal notions of morality weaponized to police women and gender minorities,” Nighat Dad, internet activist and executive director of Digital Rights Foundation, told Rest of World. “Blocking platforms results in the state taking on a paternalistic role, positioning itself to make important decisions regarding what information citizens can access.”
The absence of transparency surrounding the law makes matters worse for investors. “The larger problem with the law itself is that it is so opaque,” Lakhani said. “If I’m speaking to an investor and they hear about something like this [Wikipedia ban], they’re like, well, you know, if we decide to invest in a local platform and focus on it as an example, how do we know it won’t get banned? I don’t really have a response for that.”
Global tech companies operating in Pakistan have attempted to push back on the growing restrictions. In December 2020, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and eBay banded together under the Asia Internet Coalition and wrote to then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying the PTA had passed the new regulations without due consultation and process. The coalition also said these new regulations had expanded the PTA’s powers to a degree that could force tech companies to violate established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression.
According to lawyer Khan, Pakistan’s laws and regulations “are interpreted broadly,” and that tech companies opening up offices in the country could bear the brunt of it. “We could see human rights abuses … being meted out to those executives who perform their jobs as representatives of tech companies in Pakistan,” he said. “We don’t have safe harbor provisions. There have been many cases where we’ve seen people being dragged to courts and handcuffed for a number of things that they’re not responsible for,” he added.
The PTA has rubbished these concerns, claiming instead that having tech giants establish a local presence would improve investment in Pakistan’s tech sector. Rest of World reached out to PTA spokesperson Malahat Obaid but didn’t get a response.
In December 2022, Google ended up establishing a liaison office in Karachi, Pakistan, as mandated by the PTA.