For the past two years, the Pakistani government has forced Google and Apple to remove apps in the country that were created by developers from other countries that are part of an oppressed religious minority.
The move is part of an action by the country’s telecommunications authority against the Muslim Ahmadiyya community. The number of followers, called Ahmadis, is around 4 million in Pakistan. Although Ahmadis identify as Muslims, the Pakistani government regards them as heretics and a 1984 ordinance prohibits them from posing as Muslims, adopting Islamic religious practices, and designating their places of worship as mosques. Pakistan is the only country that declares that Ahmadis are not Muslim.
Ahmadis have faced persecution for decades, including an attack in 2010 that killed 93 people. However, pressure from the Pakistani telecommunications authority, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), on multinational technology companies signals a new willingness to address religious minorities beyond their borders. It is also one of the first examples of governments using anti-blasphemy rules to force international tech companies to censor content.
It is about seven religious apps that were created by the Ahmadi community in the USA and published under the name “Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”.
Three of the apps contain “exactly the same thing [Arabic] Text commonly found in all versions of the Holy Qur’an ”, as well as comments from the Ahmadi perspective as described. They are still available in app stores in other countries. All of these have been removed by Google in Pakistan. There are also four other apps, including an FAQ on Islam and a weekly Urdu language news magazine, that are pressured by the PTA but have not been removed.
A PTA spokesperson was asked for comment and referred BuzzFeed News to the department’s website.
“Our services make search results, videos, apps and other content generally available in accordance with human rights standards and are subject to local laws,” a Google spokesman told BuzzFeed News. “We seek government contracts whenever appropriate, and when we need to remove apps and other types of content that doesn’t violate our policies, we try to be as restrictive as possible.”
Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a notice from Apple to app developers on May 17, 2019 stated that one of their apps had been removed from their store in Pakistan because it “contained illegal content”.
According to a press release from PTA, Pakistan last sent opt-out notifications for Ahmadi content to Google and Wikipedia on December 25, 2020. 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 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 executives from the Ahmadi community spoke to executives from Google.
“[Google] said they had raised the human rights concerns to PTA but were told that if they did not remove the Ahmadi content, they would have to stop doing business in Pakistan, ”Zafar said. “We were definitely surprised … we thought as soon as we brought up the human rights issue, they would do what is right.”
The PTA also ordered the closure of a US-based Ahmadi website, TrueIslam.com, and threatened its administrators with criminal charges fined $ 3 million. The decision may not be enforceable as the people who run the site, including Zafar, do not live in Pakistan. But it does mean they may face charges if they go there, which means Zafar won’t be able to visit his extended family.
“This is a worrying development and nothing less than an attempt to arm Pakistan’s blasphemy laws against US citizens,” wrote a lawyer representing the site’s administrators in a letter to the Pakistani authorities.
Pakistan is one of several countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany, Nigeria, and Russia, that have data localization rules in place to provide better control over technology platforms. When technology companies store data or have offices in a country, they must comply with local laws.
The PTA issued new rules late last year that allow it to block content online. These rules enabled him to censor online content that he believed could harm the government or endanger Pakistan’s security.
The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group that includes Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, rejected the decision and wrote in a letter to the regulator on December 5 that the rules would “prevent Pakistani citizens from going free and access open internet. ”
Zafar said the PTA has been pressuring Google since 2018 and Apple since 2019. Ahmadi developers have developed other versions of the Qur’an app in recent years, each of which companies discontinued after PTA orders.
Google discontinued the Ahmadiyya community’s first Qur’an app in September 2018. After objections, Google restored the app and held a meeting between the company and the developers the following March.
According to the record of the meeting, a Google executive asked if he would consider removing the word “Muslim” from his name to avoid offending the Pakistani government.
“No,” replied one of Zafar’s colleagues, an Ahmadi lawyer. “This decision will have a significant impact, a precedent that, once validated by one of the world’s largest corporations, will enable Pakistan to move forward.”
The meeting ended without a resolution, Zafar said, and in October 2019 Google took the app down again. Apple removed the same app from its store in May.
Zafar said he was disappointed.
“All Google has done is surrender to PTA and censor our community,” said Zafar. “This exacerbates human rights violations against us as it confirms Pakistan’s basis for the persecution. If there are alternative solutions we’d love to hear them, but so far Google has not offered any alternatives. “●