Google Registration In Pakistan Is Cause For Concern, Not Jubilation

Google Registration In Pakistan Is Cause For Concern, Not Jubilation
Google's registration in Pakistan has sparked fears among digital rights advocates. Hija Kamran, an activist, took to Twitter and posted a thread alerting netizens to the impending breach of privacy that might be an outcome of sweeping powers that the government may exercise in collaboration with Google.

The registration of Google in Pakistan should worry everyone, and if you're not worried, you need to pay attention.

With Google being localised, it gives easy access for the Pakistani government – which does not have a good track record of respecting people's rights – to obtain people's data that Google collects. This has direct implications for the safety of activists, journalists, rights defenders, opposition members, dissidents, and general citizens.

Google's registration is being approved under the draconian 'Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules', also known as the "Social Media Rules", drafted under Section 37 of PECA that grants blanket powers to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to censor online content.

The Rules were drafted and approved by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in secrecy. A leaked copy was made public in February 2022, and only then it was revealed that they're intended to curtail civil liberties on the internet instead of protecting people. The powers that were being extended to the authorities, including PTA, would mean citizens' data would have to be in direct reach of the government if the social media companies don't want to be banned in the country. A timeline of those developments can be followed here.

But civil society advocacy led to the Islamabad High Court, in May 2022, ordering parliament to review the Rules before they're implemented. The status of the Rules is unclear as the progress, if any, of court-ordered parliamentary review remains unknown.

Because the Rules – and Google's registration in Pakistan – give the government unrestricted access to user data, this access is also not regulated. Pakistan does not have a Data Protection Law to this day, even though a draft has been in the works since 2018. This puts Pakistanis' data under constant risk of being breached, misused and/or abused at the hands of anyone who has access.

With the Rules, the government (previous and current) has attempted to legitimise its misuse of data.

That said, it'd be naive to expect that the Pakistani government wouldn't misuse the localisation of tech companies holding massive amount of personal data. It would be stupidity to believe what government representatives say about data protection until there's a law in place that unconditionally grants that protection.

It is also important to look closely at how tech companies prioritise profits over user safety, and Google's registration is a good example for that.

It also sets bad precedent for other tech companies with terrible rights-respecting records, to follow these footsteps.