For the past two years, the government of Pakistan has forced Google and Apple to abandon apps in the country created by developers based in other nations who are part of a repressed religious minority.
The move is part of a repression led by the country’s telecommunications regulator aimed at the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The adherents, named Ahmadis, number about 4 million in Pakistan. Although Ahmadis identify as Muslims, the Pakistani government sees them as heretics, and a 1984 ordinance prohibits them from “acting” as Muslims, adopting Islamic religious practices, and referring to their houses of worship. like mosques. Pakistan is the only country to say that Ahmadis are not Muslims.
Ahmadis have faced persecution for decades, including an attack in 2010 that killed 93 people. But pressure on multinational technology companies from Pakistan’s telecommunications regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), reports a new will to destabilize religious minorities beyond their borders. It is also one of the first examples of governments using anti-blasphemy rules to force international technology companies to censor content.
In discussion are seven religious apps created by the Ahmadi community in the United States, published under the name “Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”.
Three of the applications contain “the same [Arabic] text found universally in all versions of the Holy Qur’an, ”as well as comments from the Ahmadi perspective, according to their descriptions. They are still available on the app store in other countries. All of these have been picked up by Google in Pakistan. , there are four other apps, which include an FAQ on Islam and a weekly urdu magazine in organic language, which the PTA is pressuring Google to remove, but which have not been dropped.
Asked to comment, a PTA spokesman 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 into account human rights standards,” a Google spokesman told BuzzFeed News. “We challenge the government’s order when it is approved, and when we need to remove applications and other types of content that do not violate our policies, we seek to do so in the least restrictive way possible.”
Apple did not respond to comment requests, but a notice from Apple to app developers, dated May 17, 2019, said it was taking one of its apps from its store in Pakistan because it “includes illegal content “.
Pakistan most recently submitted deletion announcements for Ahmadi content to Google and Wikipedia on December 25, 2020, according to a PTA press release. Two days later, Google took one of the Qur’an applications, said Harris Zafar, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the United States. (There is no indication that Wikipedia will abandon any Ahmadi content in response to the request, but the Wikimedia Foundation has not returned a comment request.)
A few weeks later, a group of Ahmadi community leaders spoke with Google leaders.
“[Google] he indicated that they had raised human rights concerns with PTA, but were told that they would have stopped their activity in Pakistan if they had not eliminated the Ahmadi content, ”Zafar said.“ We were certainly surprised. .. We think that once they raise the issue of human rights, they will do what is right. “
The PTA has also ordered the closure of a US-based Ahmadi site, TrueIslam.com, threatening its administrators with criminal charges carrying a $ 3 million fine. The decision may not be applicable, since the people who run the site, including Zafar, do not live in Pakistan. But it means they can face charges if they travel there, which means Zafar can’t visit his extended family.
“This is a disturbing development and nothing short of an attempt to arm Pakistan’s blasphemy laws against American citizens,” wrote a lawyer representing the site’s administrators in a letter to Pakistani authorities. .
Pakistan is one of several countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany, Nigeria, and Russia, Which have data localization rules to exercise greater control over technology platforms. When technology companies file data or have offices in a country, they must comply with local laws.
The PTA has published new rules at the end of last year that gave them wider powers to block online content. These rules have allowed him to censor online content that could, in his view, harm the government or threaten Pakistan’s security.
The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group that includes members, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, opposed the decision, writing in a letter to the regulator on Dec. 5 that the rules prevent citizens Pakistanis to access a free and open internet. . “
Zafar said the PTA had put pressure on Google since 2018 and Apple since 2019. Ahmadi developers have made other versions of the Qur’an app in later years, each of which companies have taken after the PTA order.
Google took over the first Qur’an app from the Ahmadiyya community in September 2018. After objections, Google reopened the app and held a meeting between the company and the 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 give Pakistan the power to continue with this, due to the validation of one of the world’s largest corporations.”
The meeting ended without a resolution, Zafar said, and in October 2019, Google resumed the application. 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. “This exacerbates human rights abuses against us as it validates Pakistan’s base of persecution. If there are alternative solutions, we would love to hear them, but so far Google has not offered alternatives.” ●