The double-edged local compliance

January 8, 2023

The government’s demand for Google to set up a compliance office in Islamabad may result in reduced freedoms on its platforms

The double-edged local compliance


n a recent development, the social media giant, Google LLC, has opened a liaison office in Karachi with the intention of exploring business opportunities in Pakistan. However, the government is persisting in its demand for Google and other social media companies to set up compliance offices in Islamabad. It is important for Pakistani citizens to understand the state’s likely motives behind this demand and how this may affect the use of Google services by ordinary Pakistani users.

Google, one of the leading big-data companies in the world, offers a wide range of free services globally, including search engine, email, a video sharing platform, analytics, maps, cloud services, video conferencing and calendars. However, the “so-called” free services come at a cost; they require users to give up their right to privacy and invest their time and resources into creating content for Google’s social media platforms, such as YouTube.

In recent years, Pakistan has become a lucrative market for Google, with over 71 million users using its YouTube platform. Many users have successfully established themselves as vloggers, creating a wide range of content for the platform. In return, YouTube generates revenue through its artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered algorithms, which push personalised third-party advertisements to its users. Google also accesses and stores its users’ browsing histories from internet browsers. However, many users are unaware of the information they are unintentionally giving up and the potential consequences of that.

Google collects, controls and processes all kinds of digital information and data generated through users’ online activities through its products, which can be installed on computers, smartphones, smart TVs and other devices. Every click creates data that reflects a user’s patterns of life. In some cases, this data can be sensitive, such as when an investigative journalist accesses online databases or a human rights defender runs an online campaign for marginalised groups that are victims of discrimination and inequality. While corporations may be interested in this data for business purposes, states also have a strong desire to access it.

The Pakistani government’s demand for Google to set up a compliance office in Islamabad is a violation of Pakistani citizens’ right to privacy, as protected under Article 14 of the constitution. In October 2021, the government approved the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguard) Rules under Section 37(A) of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, which requires that all social media companies set up physical offices in Islamabad and host data of Pakistani users within the country’s jurisdiction. Google looks set to become the first social media company to fall into this trap set by the Pakistani government.

A delegation from Google’s regional office held meetings with officials from the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) in the second week of December 2022. While the specifics of the meetings are not public, it is known that the MoITT once again pushed Google authorities to establish a compliance office in Islamabad. The government has also made similar demands of other social media companies, such as Meta, TikTok and Twitter.

Ministry officials expressed their dissatisfaction with the 41.5 percent response rate to the government’s requests from major social media companies. This reflects the state’s intention in taking the reins when it comes to online content moderation.

The opening of physical offices of social media companies in Islamabad in compliance with the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguard) Rules will make it easier for the state to access citizens’ data. The rules also require that social media companies localise all Pakistani citizens’ data and comply with government requests under Section 4 of the rules. This rule states that the companies must “provide... any information or data or content or sub-content contained in any online information system owned or managed or run by [the] respective service provider or social media company, in decrypted, readable, and comprehensible format…”

In compliance with the data localisation provision, any social media company setting up an office in Islamabad will also be required to set up data centres in Pakistan. Another concern is that Pakistan has not yet enacted a comprehensive data protection law or privacy oversight mechanism. It is possible that the government has been waiting for the response of social media companies to the data localisation provisions. The recent developments regarding Google in Pakistan seem to be in line with the wishes of the Pakistani state.

According to Google’s transparency report, the Pakistani government made at least 308 content blocking/ removal requests from their different platforms, primarily YouTube and Blogger, in the first half of 2022. In the second half of 2021, these requests stood at 378. It is likely that Pakistan will see an increase in similar requests once the data localisation provision is met. In a recent parliamentary committee briefing, an official from the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) stated that they made more than 15,444 requests to social media companies to take down unlawful, defamatory, impersonation and fake links on Meta, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Daily Motion and others. However, only 6,418 requests were entertained, and 1,315 were rejected. The MoITT officials expressed their dissatisfaction with the 41.5 percent positive response rate to the government’s requests from social media companies. This reflects the state’s likely intention to take control over users’ ability to access political discourses on the internet and they may potentially misuse it.

The localisation of Pakistani citizens’ data hosted on social media platforms like Google means that all Pakistani laws will apply to the control and processing of this data. This is significant for the protection of the privacy of Pakistani citizens, as the data is currently stored in multiple locations around the world, making it difficult for the government to access and process. Social media users, particularly marginalised communities and sensitive groups such as journalists and rights-based or political activists, may become the primary targets of state surveillance. Their movements, plans and communications will be easily accessible to the government, which could use or abuse this information to intimidate and silence them, further encouraging self-censorship in the country.

Pakistan is a democracy where fundamental rights are constitutionally protected. However, the country’s evolving legal framework includes many gray areas that allow the government to exploit and manipulate individuals or groups, as seen in the cases of various political leaders and journalists.

Data localisation by social media companies like Google, Meta, TikTok, Twitter and others in compliance with Pakistan’s legal measures can jeopardise the fundamental rights and lives of citizens. These companies have a responsibility to protect the rights of Pakistani citizens under global corporate social responsibility mechanisms. But it is also important for citizens to be aware of these issues and speak out in defence of their rights.

The writer is a journalist and digital rights expert

The double-edged local compliance