Over the past two years, The Pakistani government has forced Google and Apple to delete apps in the country that were created by developers in other countries who belong to a repressed religious minority.
This step is part of Funnel Led by the country’s telecom regulator targeting the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The number of followers of the Ahmadiyya community is around 4 million in Pakistan. Although the Ahmadis consider them to be Muslims, the Pakistani government considers them heretics, and a 1984 law prohibits them from “posing” as Muslims, adopting Islamic religious practices, and referring to their places of worship as mosques. Pakistan is the only country to declare that the Ahmadis are not Muslims.
Ahmadis have faced persecution for decades, including 2010 attack killed 93 people. But pressure on multinational tech companies from the Pakistan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the Pakistan Communications Authority (PTA), points out New desire To target religious minorities outside their borders. It is also one of the first examples of governments using anti-blasphemy rules to force international tech companies to censor content.
There are seven religious applications created by the Ahmadiyya Community in the United States, and published under the name “The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”.
Three of the apps contain “the same thing.” [Arabic] A text that exists universally in all versions of the Holy Quran “, as well as an explanation from Al Ahmadi’s perspective, according to their descriptions. It is still available in app stores in other countries. All of these have been removed by Google in Pakistan. In addition, there are four other apps, which are Includes common questions about Islam and a weekly urdu news magazine, PTA is pressing Google to remove it, but it has not been removed.
When a PTA spokesperson was asked for comment, he directed BuzzFeed News to the department’s website.
A Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “Our services make search results, videos, apps and other content widely available, in accordance with local laws, with observance of human rights standards.” “We challenge government orders whenever appropriate, and when we are asked to remove apps and other types of content that do not violate our policies, we try to do so in the least restrictive way possible.”
Apple did not respond to requests for comment, but a notice from Apple to app developers dated May 17, 2019, said that it was removing one of their apps from its store in Pakistan because it “contains illegal content.”
Pakistan recently sent takedown notices for Ahmadi content to Google and Wikipedia on December 25, 2020, as per the preferential trade agreement. Press release. Harris Zafar, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States, said that two days later, Google deleted an app for the Quran. (There is no indication that Wikipedia removed any Ahmadi content in response to the request, but the Wikimedia Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.)
A few weeks later, a group of Ahmadi community leaders spoke to Google executives.
“[Google] Zafar indicated that they had raised human rights concerns to the PTA but were told that they would have to stop their actions in Pakistan if they did not remove Al Ahmadi content. ”“ We were definitely surprised … we thought that once we raised the field of human rights, they would do the right thing. ”
The PTA has also ordered the closure of the Ahmadi site in the United States, TrueIslam.comAnd threatens its administrators with criminal charges amounting to a fine of 3 million dollars. The decision may not be enforceable, as the people who run the site, Zafar included, do not live in Pakistan. But this means that they could face charges if they travel there, which means Zafar cannot visit his extended family.
A lawyer representing the site’s managers wrote in a letter to the Pakistani authorities: “This is a worrying development and nothing less than an attempt to weaponize Pakistani blasphemy laws against American citizens.”
One Pakistan From several countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany, Nigeria, And the Russia, Which has data localization rules to exert greater control over technical platforms. When tech companies store data or have offices in a country, they must comply with local laws.
Preferential Trade Area Issued new rules Late last year it gave it broader powers to block online content. These rules allowed it to monitor online content that, in his view, could harm the government or threaten Pakistan’s security.
The Asia Internet Alliance, an industry group whose members include Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, opposed the decision, writing in a letter to the regulator on December 5 that the rules would prevent Pakistani citizens from accessing the free and open internet. . “
Dhofar said PTAs have been lobbying Google since 2018 and Apple since 2019. Ahmadi developers have released other versions of the Quran app in the years since, and each has halted companies following PTA orders.
Google suspended the first Quran app for the Ahmadiyya community in September 2018. After objections, Google reinstated the app and held a meeting between the company and the developers the following March.
According to the meeting notes, a Google executive asked if they would consider removing the word “Muslim” from their names to avoid offending the Pakistani government.
One of Zafar’s colleagues, Ahmadi’s lawyer, replied, “No.” “This decision will have a great impact, and it is a precedent that will enable Pakistan to continue doing so, due to the approval of one of the major companies in the world.”
Dhofar said the meeting ended unresolved, and in October 2019, Google removed the app again. Apple removed the app itself from its store in May.
Zafar said he was disappointed.
“All Google did was surrender to the PTA and censor our community,” Zafar said. This exacerbates the human rights violations against us as it establishes Pakistan’s basis for persecution. If there are workarounds, we’d love to hear about them, but so far Google hasn’t offered any alternatives. ”●