Battle brews between govt, Big Tech with new rules

By Khurram Husain

KARACHI: In a seemingly innocuous letter written to the prime minister, the Asia Internet Coalition has gently raised its concerns regarding a renewed push by the government to put in place rules for blocking of online content. They are called the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020 (“Rules”), and they have been approved by the cabinet recently, according to knowledgeable sources. One of these government sources tells Dawn that they will be made public after they have been notified, which he said should be “by next week”.

Behind the scenes, however, a larger battle appears to be shaping up between government and the big technology platforms that the Coalition represents. In addition to content regulation, the issue is control of and access to the voluminous amounts of private and highly personalised data that these platforms collect from their users, according to background conversations between Dawn and executives from these platforms.

The Coalition represents some of the mightiest tech giants in the world today. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter are among its constituents, along with many others like LinkedIn, AirBnB and many travel sites, as well as search engines like Yahoo.

In its letter, dated October 6, the Coalition expresses regret that neither it nor any of its constituent companies were consulted when the Rules were drafted up, despite a pledge by the government back in February to undertake an “extensive and broad-based consultation process with all relevant segments of civil society and technology companies”.

The notification for the Rules issued in January was later suspended following an outcry, and a consultative process launched in June 2020. But in early October, news broke that a new draft of the Rules has been sent to a cabinet committee for approval. The Coalition says neither it nor any of its constituent members were consulted.

In its letter to the prime minister, the Coalition says it is “deeply concerned by the lack of consultation and would like to bring to your attention that despite multiple requests, no draft of the revised Rules has been shared with industry stakeholders for input or feedback”. As such, it adds, the consultative process “appears to have lost credibility”.

Background conversations, on condition of anonymity, with two senior executives from companies represented by the Coalition suggest that far more is at stake in the whole exercise than what the letter says. One of them says what the government is actually asking for is what they call “data localisation”, or shifting the servers where user data is stored into Pakistani territory, along with complete, on demand access to any and all data stored on these servers. Along with this, there are ramped up demands for user data and content regulation, adds the other executive.

“Government is now asking for vast powers to regulate content, access user data and ultimately have that data transferred to their jurisdiction,” the executive from a social media platform tells Dawn. The executive says the matter of the latest Rules being passed in secrecy and without proper consultation was even raised by Sheryl Sandberg in her last interaction with the prime minister.

Technology platforms gather enormous amounts of data from their users, such as contact and browsing history, location history, photographs, videos and emails and complete record of phone calls and much else. This data is used to run what they call “predictive analytics” whereby the platform uses artificial intelligence to not only understand what the user has been or is currently doing, but also what the user is intending to do in the near future.

Before you make a travel booking, for example, many of these platforms are able to predict with varying levels of probability the purpose of your visit, whether it is for personal or business reasons, who you might meet and where you might stay. The game is about predicting what users will do in the immediate future and use those analytics to target ads. “This is highly personal and personalised data,” one of the executives who spoke with Dawn says.

The executive outlined five specific demands brought forward by the government. First is to open a local office in Pakistan. Second is storing all data of Pakistani users within Pakistani territory. Third is a demand to “share all data outside of the normal, legal process that exists for normally sharing such data”.

The fourth demand is to fix turnaround times for companies to remove content when ordered to. “This usually leads to overblocking due to the vast number of requests we receive, and leads to legitimate content being taken down as well,” says one executive with knowledge of these requests.

The fifth demand is what the executive described as “proactive monitoring” of the activity of Pakistani users, to start blocking certain types of content and denying access to their services automatically even without receiving a formal “takedown” request from the government.

The demands coming from the government today “are putting at risk everything we have done in Pakistan”, the executive says. “It is making tech companies ask whether there is a partnership there with the government.”

The core issue for the tech companies at the moment is “the attempt to pass these Rules in secrecy”, the executive says. In the form that they first appeared in back in February, the executive tells Dawn, the Rules were “unworkable” and could lead to a decision to halt provision of their services to Pakistani users altogether.

The Coalition is a little more understated with its language when pointing out the dangers of moving ahead without incorporating feedback from a broad-based consultative process. The Rules, it says in its letter, “if improperly formulated, would actively harm the business environment in Pakistan and its attractiveness as an investment destination for technology companies”.


Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2020