Is there any logic or coherence in the way the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has tried to block objectionable online content? The short answer is ‘no’. Last month, the PTA had provided internet service providers with a list of over 400,000 domains that needed to be blocked for pornographic content. According to the PTA, it had been asked by the Supreme Court to “take remedial steps to quantify the nefarious phenomenon of obscenity and pornography that has an imminent role to corrupt and vitiate the youth of Pakistan”. It has now emerged that among the hundreds of thousands of websites on the list provided by the PTA, there are countless websites whose content cannot be considered obscene by any stretch of the imagination. Among these is the microblogging website ‘Tumblr’ as well as websites for photography, ecommerce, blogging and business.
While not all of these websites may have been blocked yet, their mere presence on the list is disturbing, indicating that the PTA has little understanding of the nature of online content. It is completely baffling to comprehend how ‘Tumblr’ could possibly be considered a “nefarious phenomenon of obscenity”. Some time back, even Instagram, the popular photo and video-sharing social-networking service with nearly 400 million users globally, was blocked for some days. Clearly, there is no system or transparency behind these actions. What the PTA has ostensibly ignored is that people who want to access blocked content will be able to do so through the use of proxies and VPNs. The YouTube ban lasted for over three years. And who suffered? Mostly people who were not tech-savvy enough to find ways to access content blocked by the government. YouTube and social networking websites, among other online content, provide an avenue for people to educate themselves, find entertainment, launch businesses and expand their careers. Yet, the authorities conveniently snatch this access away from citizens with there being little or no accountability. It is time freedom of information is recognised as a basic right in this country in the true sense of the word.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2016.