Over the past two years, the Pakistani government has forced Google and Apple to remove apps in the country created by developers based in other countries who are part of a suppressed religious minority.
The move is part of a repression led by the country’s telecommunications regulator targeting the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The adherents, called Ahmadis, number around 4 million in Pakistan. Although Ahmadis identify themselves as Muslims, the Pakistani government considers them to be heretics, and a 1984 ordinance prohibits them from “pretending to be Muslims, adopting Islamic religious practices, and labeling their places of worship as Muslims. mosques. Pakistan is the only country to declare that Ahmadis are not Muslims.
Ahmadis have been persecuted for decades, including an attack in 2010 that killed 93 people. But pressure on multinational tech companies by Pakistan’s telecommunications regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), reports a new will target religious minorities beyond its borders. It’s also one of the first examples of governments using anti-blasphemy rules to force global tech companies to censor content.
These are seven religious apps created by the Ahmadi community in the United States, published under the name “Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”.
Three of the apps contain “exactly the same [Arabic] text found universally in all versions of the Holy Quran ”, as well as commentaries from the Ahmadi perspective, according to their descriptions. They are still available on app stores in other countries. All of these were removed by Google in Pakistan. In addition, there are four other apps, which include an Islam FAQ and a weekly Urdu news magazine, which the PTA is pressuring Google to remove, but which have not been removed.
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the PTA directed BuzzFeed News to the department’s website.
“Our services make search results, videos, apps and other content widely available, subject to local laws, taking human rights standards into account,” a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News . “We challenge government orders whenever appropriate, and where we are required to remove apps and other types of content that do not violate our policies, we try to do so in the least restrictive manner possible.”
Apple did not respond to requests for comment, but a notice from Apple to app developers, dated May 17, 2019, said it was removing one of their apps from its store in Pakistan because it “understands illegal content ”.
Pakistan recently sent takedown notices for Ahmadi content to Google and Wikipedia on December 25, 2020, PTA says Press release. Two days later, Google removed one of the Quran’s apps, said Harris Zafar, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the United States. (There is no indication that Wikipedia removed 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 leaders from the Ahmadiya community spoke to Google executives.
“[Google] indicated that they had raised their human rights concerns to PTA, but were told they would have to stop their activities in Pakistan if they did not remove Ahmadi content, ”Zafar said. . “We were certainly surprised… We thought that once we raised the issue of human rights, they would do the right thing.”
The PTA also ordered the closure of a US-based Ahmadi site, TrueIslam.com, threatening its administrators with criminal charges carrying a fine of $ 3 million. The decision may not be binding as the people who run the site, including Zafar, do not live in Pakistan. But that means they can face charges if they travel there, meaning Zafar can’t visit his extended family.
“This is a disturbing development and nothing less than an attempt to militarize Pakistan’s blasphemy laws against US citizens,” wrote a lawyer representing the site’s administrators in a letter to Pakistani authorities.
Pakistan is one from several countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany, Nigeria, and Russia, which have data location rules to exercise greater control over technology platforms. When tech companies store data or have offices in a country, they must comply with local laws.
The PTA published new rules at the end of last year, which gives it broader powers to block online content. These rules allowed him to censor online content that he believed could harm the government or threaten Pakistan’s security.
The Asia Internet Coalition, 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 free and open Internet. . “
Zafar said the PTA had been lobbying Google since 2018 and Apple since 2019. Developers Ahmadi created other versions of the Quran app in the years that followed, each of which was removed as a result of the orders. by PTA.
Google removed the first Quran app from the Ahmadiyya community in September 2018. After objections, Google reinstated the app and held a meeting between the company and developers the following March.
According to meeting notes, a Google executive asked if they would consider removing the word “Muslim” from their name to avoid offending the Pakistani government.
“No,” replied one of Zafar’s colleagues, an Ahmadi lawyer. “This decision will have a major impact, a precedent that will allow Pakistan to continue on this path, thanks to the validation of one of the largest global companies.”
The meeting ended without a resolution, Zafar said, and in October 2019 Google withdrew the app again. Apple removed the same app from its store in May.
Zafar said he was disappointed.
“All Google has done is capitulate to PTA and censor our community,” Zafar said. “It exacerbates the human rights violations against us because it validates the Pakistani basis of the persecution. If there are alternative solutions, we would love to hear them, but to date Google has not offered any alternatives. “●