Over the last two years, the government of Pakistan has forced Google and Apple to take down 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 crackdown led by the country’s telecommunications regulator targeting the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Adherents, called Ahmadis, number about 4 million in Pakistan. Though Ahmadis identify as Muslim, Pakistan’s government views them as heretics, and a 1984 ordinance forbids them from “posing” as Muslims, adopting Islamic religious practices, and referring to their houses of worship as mosques. Pakistan is the only country to declare that Ahmadis are not Muslim.
Ahmadis have faced persecution for decades, including an attack in 2010 that killed 93 people. But the pressure on multinational tech companies from Pakistan’s telecom regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), signals a new willingness to target religious minorities beyond its borders. It is also one of the first examples of governments using anti-blasphemy rules to force international tech companies to censor content.
At issue 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 “the exact same [Arabic] text found universally in all versions of the Holy Quran,” as well as commentary from the Ahmadi perspective, according to their descriptions. They are still available on app stores in other countries. All of these have been taken down by Google in Pakistan. In addition, there are four other apps, which include an FAQ on Islam and a weekly Urdu-language news magazine, that the PTA is pressuring Google to remove, but which have not been taken down.
Asked to comment, a PTA spokesperson directed BuzzFeed News to the department's website.
“Our services make search results, videos, apps, and other content broadly available, subject to local laws, taking into account human rights standards,” a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We challenge government orders whenever appropriate, and when we’re required to remove apps and other types of content that don’t 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 the app developers, dated May 17, 2019, said it was taking one of their apps down from its store in Pakistan because it “includes content that is illegal.”
Pakistan most recently sent takedown notices for Ahmadi content to Google and Wikipedia on Dec. 25, 2020, according to a PTA press release. Two days later, Google took one of the Qur’an apps down, said Harris Zafar, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States. (There’s no indication that Wikipedia took down 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] indicated that they had raised the human rights concerns to PTA but were told that they would have to stop their business in Pakistan if they did not remove the Ahmadi content,” Zafar said. “We were certainly surprised … We thought once we raised the human rights aspect, they would do what is right.”
The PTA also ordered shut a US-based Ahmadi site, TrueIslam.com, threatening its administrators with criminal charges that carry a $3 million fine. The decision may not be enforceable, since the people who run the site, including Zafar, do not live in Pakistan. But it does mean they may 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 weaponize Pakistan’s blasphemy laws against US citizens,” wrote a lawyer who represents the site’s administrators in a letter to Pakistani authorities.
Pakistan is one of several countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany, Nigeria, and Russia, that have data localization rules to exercise greater control over tech platforms. When tech companies store data or have offices in a country, they must comply with local laws.
The PTA issued new rules late last year that give it broader powers to block online content. Those rules allowed it to censor content online that could, in its view, 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, writing in a letter to the regulator on Dec. 5 that the rules would “prevent Pakistani citizens from accessing a free and open internet.”
Zafar said the PTA had been pressuring Google since 2018 and Apple since 2019. Ahmadi developers have made other versions of the Qur'an app in the years since, each of which the companies have taken down following PTA orders.
Google took the Ahmadiyya community’s first Qur’an app down in September 2018. After objections, Google reinstated the app and held a meeting between the company and the developers the following March.
According to notes from the meeting, a Google executive asked if they would consider taking the word “Muslim” out of their name to avoid offending Pakistan’s government.
“No,” one of Zafar’s colleagues, an Ahmadi lawyer, replied. “This decision will have a major impact, a precedent that will empower Pakistan to continue with this, due to validation from one of the world’s major corporations.”
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 capitulate to PTA and censor our community,” Zafar said. “This exacerbates the human rights abuses against us as it validates Pakistan’s basis of the persecution. If there are alternative solutions, we would like to hear them, but to date Google has offered no alternatives.” ●