For the past two years, the Pakistani government has forced Google and Apple to take down apps in the country created by developers based in other countries that are part of a restricted religious minority.
The transfer of part of a fight led by the country’s telecommunications regulator targeting the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The following, called Ahmadis, number 4 million in Pakistan. Even if Ahmadis are recognized as Muslims, the Pakistani government views them as heretics, and a 1984 ordinance prohibits them from “settling” as Muslims, adopting Islamic religious practices, and defining their houses of worship as mosques. Pakistan is the only country that has declared that Ahmadis are not Muslims.
Ahmadis have faced persecution for decades, including an attack in 2010 that killed 93 people. But pressure on multinational tech companies from Pakistan’s telecom regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), signaled a new readiness to target religious minorities outside its borders. It’s also one of the first examples of governments using anti-infringement rules to force international tech companies to censor content.
Seven religious apps created by the Ahmadi community in the United States have been released, published under the name “Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.”
Three of the apps have the content “exactly the same [Arabic] text found in the entire version of all versions of the Holy Quran, ”as well as commentary from the Ahmadi point of view, consistent with their descriptions. They will still be available in app stores in other countries. All of this was taken over by Google in Pakistan. In addition, there are four more apps, which include a FAQ about Islam and a weekly Urdu -language news magazine, which the PTA has forced Google to remove, but has not removed.
Asked to comment, a PTA spokesperson hosted BuzzFeed News on the department’s website.
“Our services make search results, videos, apps, and other content widely available, subject to local laws, taking into account human rights standards,” a spokesperson said. on Google at BuzzFeed News. “We challenge government orders whenever appropriate, and if we need to remove apps and other content that doesn’t violate our policies, we try to do it in the shortest possible way.”
Apple did not respond to requests for comment, but a press release from Apple to app developers, dated May 17, 2019, said it had removed one of their apps from its store in Pakistan because “ it has an illegal content. “
Pakistan most recently sent removal notices for Ahmadi content to Google and Wikipedia in Dec. 25, 2020, approved by a PTA press release. Two days later, Google took down one of the Qur’an apps, said Harris Zafar, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States. (There is no indication that Wikipedia took any Ahmadi content in response to the request, but the Wikimedia Foundation did not return a request for comment.)
A few weeks later, a group of Ahmadi community leaders spoke with Google executives.
“[Google] showed that they raised human rights concerns in the PTA but were told that they would stop their business in Pakistan if they did not take away the Ahmadi stance, ”Zafar said. “We’re definitely surprised… We think that once we raise the human rights aspect, they’ll do what’s right.”
The PTA also ordered the closure of the US-based Ahmadi site, TrueIslam.com, threatening its managers with criminal charges carrying $ 3 million in fines. The decision may be unenforceable, as the people who run the site, including Zafar, do not live in Pakistan. But that means they could face lawsuits if they travel there, which means Zafar will not be able to visit his relative.
“This is a disturbing development and there is no attempt to arm Pakistan’s defamation laws against U.S. citizens,” a lawyer representing area administrators wrote in a letter to the Pakistani authorities.
Pakistan is one in many countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany’s, Nigeria, ug Russia, with data localization rules to exercise greater control over tech platforms. If tech companies store data or have offices in a country, they must comply with local laws.
The PTA issued new rules late last year it gave even more power to block online content. The rules allow it to censor online content which, in its view, would harm the government or threaten the security of Pakistan.
The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group whose members include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, opposed the decision, wrote a letter to the regulator on December 5 that the rules would “hinder Pakistani citizens from accessing the free and open internet. ”
Zafar said the PTA has been pushing Google since 2018 and Apple since 2019. Ahmadi makers have been making other versions of the Qur’an app over the years, each of which has taken the companies that comply with PTA orders.
Google took over the first Qur’an app to the Ahmadiyya community in September 2018. Following protests, Google reinstated the app and held a meeting between the company and manufacturers the following March.
Consistent with notes from the meeting, a Google executive asked if they would consider removing the word “Muslim” from their name to avoid offending the Pakistani government.
“No,” one of Zafar’s colleagues, an Ahmadi lawyer, replied. “This decision will have a huge impact, a pattern that will empower Pakistan to pursue it, thanks to testimonials from one of the world’s leading corporations.”
The meeting ended without a resolution, according to Zafar, and in October 2019, Google also took over the app. Apple removed the same app from its store in May.
Zafar said he was disappointed.
“All Google has done is capitulate the PTA and censor our community,” Zafar said. “It has exacerbated human rights abuses against us because it affirms Pakistan’s basis for persecution. If there are alternative solutions, we would love to hear them, but so far Google has not offered an alternative. ”●