A recent advertisement by the National ICT and R&D fund has put many in consternation. The advertisement is seeking bids from the technical companies over the plans to block millions of URLs from being accessed in Pakistan. Not much is known of the proposal, apart from the fact that it is thought necessary to have website filtering because "many countries" have the same system.
This measure comes after previously much maligned actions; firstly there is the law that prohibits use of unsavoury language against the President of Pakistan on mobile, this law is yet to be fully enforced. And then there was the alleged PTA's list of banned words that was leaked. This never saw the light of the day, after much criticism was made of the proposed list. This shows that government is likely to face strict opposition.
The proposal faces many uphill struggles in itself. The Supreme Court has taken a very activist role towards the government's executive actions, and this measure is likely to face such a legal challenge in the higher courts. Though it may be noted that in May, 2010 the Lahore High Court (highest court in the Province of Punjab) had directed banning of popular social media Facebook after the "Draw Mohammad Cartoon" controversy.
The main issues that may come from this measure are two folds, first is technological and secondly political.
It is claimed by some of the Information Technology experts that proposed blocking of URLs would lead to slow down of the overall speed of the internet. In a world, where Pakistan is looking to competing, at providing outsourcing and IT solutions, with its more established neighbour India, slow down of internet can be highly disastrous for the IT industry and the economy as a whole. It is also not good for domestic usage, and it goes against the international trend towards increasing the speed of the internet provided to all users and businesses.
Secondly, there may be political repercussions of this action. A broad definition is probably going to be used to justify this act, such as the measures are there to curb websites that are 'obscene' 'extreme' and 'contrary to national security'. Even with the most benign intentions, such a measure can be disastrously misused. For what is considered as obscene by one, may differ from another's version of it. Surely many rightwing parties of the country consider freedom of expression itself an anathema and obscene western ideal. It may be argued by proponents of the act that Pakistan is a democratic country, and surely anyone in power would hold the ideals of the majority.
The problem is that Pakistan has tendency of not remaining a democracy for long, yet it has remained a republic throughout. So these very measures may remain enacted as law, but could be used, or abused, by a non-democratic government. Secondly, because these are being enacted in a democratic era, they would have greater moral authority and their misuse likely to be more effective. The potential use of these measures could stifle free speech in the country. Freedom of Speech is a vital safeguard for the minorities as well, and such sweeping changes are likely to affect them the most.
What bewilders the mind is why such a proposal of blanket censorship of internet is being sought, as this is contrary to many ideals of the ruling coalition itself. The main three partners in the coalition government, Pakistan People's Party (PPP), leading partner, Awami National Party (ANP) and Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), all have expressed in their manifesto clear commitment towards freedom of speech, developing a e-commerce and ensuring greater internet access to larger population. The proposal is directly contrary to such commitments. It is hoped that these democratic parties and their leadership would realise that such measures are contrary to their aims and would oppose these measures. It is not as if the current government is not tolerant of free-speech. Government has shown its commitment to freedom of speech by taking all sorts of criticism on the electronic media, everything from political commentators to satires have been aired without much controversy. It is thus bewildering to see such a step being taken now.
While it is true that there is a real concern as to access of obscene and explicit material made available to ordinary Pakistanis. Pakistan has embarrassingly been toping Google search for words like 'porn'. It may be argued, there is a right to privacy and people should be allowed to do whatever in their homes. But this does show a tendency to not fully utilise the resources of the Internet; however a ban of this sort is counterproductive. Similarly, there are many extremist websites that spread dangerous propaganda and they are harmful to the national security. But again banning these would be counterproductive.
First of all there would be a great need for policing the internet, not only would this slow the net but also would require constant monitoring. This translates into a lot of money, and all this money would be used to play a cat and mouse game. These measures, as examples have shown in other countries, don't work. There are many proxy software and websites emerging every day, and if you block a URL, they can always change that address. A lot of money would be wasted to pursue a goal that is harmful to begin with, and with tools that could never adequate.
A better approach would be to initiate measures to re-educate the people about harmful use, and using internet for more positive gains. There are no such measures being taken in Pakistan, and it is high time to begin. There can be education seminars held and there can be classes in school about how to use internet for personal development. There is a dire need for libraries with computer facilities, these then can help create a culture of beneficial internet use. With regards to extremist website, there already are measures that can be used to get such websites like these cut off from the internet servers.
Censorship and firewall of internet is a measure that needs to be revisited, as it is contrary to aspirations of a free and democratic society in the 21st century. They are expensive, against personal privacy and counter-productive and disproportional to any aims. It is hoped that Pakistan would instead look towards leading the way in the region to bring about a more positive internet society that is able to utilise this tool for betterment. We needn't be afraid of the internet; we should embrace its full potential without stifling it.
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