How to say yes to online censorship

Published: March 12, 2012

The writer is Web Editor of The Express Tribune and tweets @Jhaque_ [email protected]

There are two opposing narratives being discussed about the government’s call for a national level internet blocking and filtering system, and both must be understood to find a path forward.

On the one hand, NGOs, internet monitoring groups, parts of the press and civil society are up in arms against the threat this proposal poses to freedom of expression and the right to information. On the other hand, we have a second narrative by Internet Service Providers (ISP) representatives, IT experts and tech bloggers who claim that the intent of a system capable of blocking up to 50 million sites is to speed up and ensure accuracy of the process, as currently ISPs have to manually block sites — a tedious and error-prone process. ISPs and the authorities are flabbergasted to find their efforts to streamline this process being ‘demonised’ by ‘propaganda’ aimed at ‘twisting’ their efforts into a freedom of speech or the right to information issue.

According to this narrative, the National ICT Research and Development Fund, which floated the proposal, is merely trying to offer local IT companies an opportunity to develop this system. How can something that creates jobs and enhances the capacity of local companies while not introducing anything new (policy-wise) be bad for Pakistan? This must be a conspiracy to defame the nation. This narrative also includes the cultural mantras of ‘porn destroys the moral fabric of society’, ‘blasphemous content cannot be tolerated’, ‘Baloch separatists should not be allowed a voice’. How can this narrative be reconciled with that of a government out to clamp down on the internet?

It cannot be denied that www.rollingstone.com is blocked due to a single anti-Pakistan army article. It cannot be denied that Baloch news websites are blocked en masse, with no accountability regarding who judged what specific content to be ‘too separatist’. It cannot be denied that all of Facebook was banned for hosting blasphemous content causing great harm to the fledgling local online economy. Now, doesn’t the narrative of an imminent threat to the internet by a better, faster blocking system make sense? It does.

Now to reconcile the two narratives. Yes, completely uncensored internet does not exist — there are things that need to be censored. This much should be acceptable to all. But how do we choose what is to be censored and how should it be censored? Sure, an automated system makes sense, but given the government’s history, this system should not be allowed without explicit involvement and monitoring by independent bodies. There is a trust deficit that the government needs to fill by taking the public on board and speaking directly to the pressure groups they feel are ‘conspiring’ against them. Additionally, the system must work for the public good and not cater to public sentiment i.e., sites cannot be banned due to pressure from a public outcry as was seen in the blanket ban on Facebook.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) must issue a list of the blocked websites with explanations for who blocked the site and for what reason, under which law, along with the length of the ban. No ban should be put in place without court approval and due discourse with independent entities set up to safeguard the rights of the citizens. Any ban on a site should be preceded by a prior warning sent to the webmaster, possibly including a two/three strike system. A notice of an implemented ban should be sent to the site owners and announced publicly and there should be a clearly established system for challenging the ban.

As yet, the PTA and the government have made no overtures to suggest they want to be held accountable or want to develop a system after consultation with the citizens they serve. Till they do, the ongoing and upcoming censorship of the internet in Pakistan must be fought tooth and nail.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2012.

Reader Comments (17)

  • arsalan majeed
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:45PM

    There should be no firewall developed that would give power to the state to censor content on the internet.it will be used by the govt. to block anything that the religious fanatics deem offensive to them.things disliked by or opinions not acceptable to the majority of the population will now be blocked by the state.
    this will only help to turn our country more insular,more only looking at content which confirms our view of how great we are.any dissenting or different point of view will now be blocked.all this will firewall will do is to create more mumtaz qadris and taliban like people as now any opinion,any article against religious terrorism will be blocked by the govt to appease the right wing fanatics.the state is taking us back to the dark ages.

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  • Liberalache
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:55PM

    Transparency will suffer if institutions to watch the watchers are not put in place. They blocked websites like makepakistanbetter for flimsy reasons. I for one think that they have already abused their ability to censor the net and get away with it…its not so easy with television stations and newspapers. The same sort of status should be given to websites as any other media outlet, you cannot shut it down without due process.

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  • Liberalache
    Mar 13, 2012 - 12:01AM

    I should also add, ironically the media outlet where this op-ed appears is quite heavy handed with its censorship. ET moderates ALL comments before they even get posted, its not giving people the freedom to post their thoughts and then removing the offending ones. That is kind of like the government’s censorship of websites…ET is doing it an a single institution level. If ET was truly committed to freedom of speech, they would not moderate ALL comments before posting…instead they would allow all comments and then moderate and block any repeat offenders. As it is, many Indian users get away with saying the most anti-Pakistan things and yet the more conservative end of the Pakistani spectrum is blocked far more often. I have kept track and at least 35% of my posts don’t even make it on to the ET site even though they may not violate any rules that make sense….the ideological viewpoint is diametrically opposite to the ultra-liberal views the people at ET seem to be committed to…they maintain a heavy hand with diverging viewpoints. If ET wants to say anything about censorship and point fingers at the government, it should first put its own house in order.

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  • faraz khan
    Mar 13, 2012 - 12:21AM

    This censoring firewall is an early Eidi for the religious extremists in our society.Now they’ll get to spread their hatefilled,misogynistic, homophobic ideology without any counter argument being presented.now they’ll have full license to brainwash another generation of people into thinking how great violence and bigotry are.This firewall is every mullah’s best dream,this is what they’ve always wanted.

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  • zafar imran
    Mar 13, 2012 - 12:26AM

    Let it be remembered by all that it was the supposedly liberal and democratic ppp that gave this ‘gift’ to the pakistani society.this slap in the face of freedom of expression,this slicing off the tongues of the contrarians,let history show that all this was done by the ppp who never tire of telling us how much they respect freedom of opinion.the ppp as before has tried to appease the mullah brigade but as before the ppp will not benefit at this last ditch attempt at appeasement of the forces of darkness.
    The ppp as before has badly let down the democratic and liberal forces in our society and as before is making a pathetic attempt to appease the ones on the rightwing whom it fears a lot.

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  • John B
    Mar 13, 2012 - 1:36AM

    Stop the import, manufacturing, sale and use of computers. It is simple, easier and cost effective for all.

    Only people who want to keep others in ignorance and want to hide their unscrupulous activities advocate censorship of the thoughts and writings of others.

    I cannot believe the author agrees that something needs to be censored and argues in favor of meaningful censorship. Censorship only drives the cabal underground and their actions are out of reach for anyone to make an informed decision, State including.

    Censorship in the hands of the state is far more dangerous than the gallows; people will be living dead.

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  • Jahanzaib Haque
    Mar 13, 2012 - 2:38AM

    I believe e.g. child pornography should be banned/blocked online, as should be videos/sites encouraging acts of terrorism. It is a question of having our priorities straight, our definitions in hand, and a system to govern it that is the question here.

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  • Chulbul Pandey
    Mar 13, 2012 - 5:04AM

    I would miss browsing The Express Tribune after that filter is put in place. I have no doubt that the State or the Deep State or the Mullah State would put a ban on you guys!

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  • Mir
    Mar 13, 2012 - 6:35AM

    Why censor at all, when pemra was made it tried to control TV channels, and print media was censored so much that papers used to come with blank spots. If somebody has issues with pornography its parents responsibility to apply filters in computers and take care of them. We all know that censorship was always used to suppress the oposition and we know that PTI’s support comes from younger generation who are tech savvy, the tool could be used to shut their voice anytime.

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  • American
    Mar 13, 2012 - 6:38AM

    I agree with the author. If they can make a system that’s totally transparent listing the websites blocked and why, and not block anything beyond what is listed, then it should not be a problem.

    They could even allow to users to file complaints if users feel that a legitimate website was mistakenly/unfairly blocked. This might allow for a system where we could filter out the bad while not blocking freedom of expression.

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  • Hindi hain hum...
    Mar 13, 2012 - 7:21AM

    Yes, completely uncensored internet does not exist — there are things that need to be censored. This much should be acceptable to all.

    A firm NO. This is not acceptable at all. An uncensored Internet can and must exist. Pornography should be blocked by parental controls for minors. It is not the government’s business. The government is not a baby-sitter or a moral police, to tell us what we should or should not see or read. The government should regulate actions, not thought or speech. Pakistan though is a topsy-turvy nation: here acid-throwers, murderers of Shias, tormentors of minorities and exporters of jihad have freedom in their actions, but ironically and probably because speech and thought are controlled and restricted.

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  • Jeddy
    Mar 13, 2012 - 11:41AM

    The only purpose of censorship is to protect the criminals and the corrupt – their misdeeds should never be exposed. Censoring porn is merely a mask – the real real reason to have censorship powers to cover up all kinds illegal activity.

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  • Pawail Qaisar
    Mar 13, 2012 - 4:07PM

    Nothing should be blocked. Period. No one holds a gun to your head and asks you to enter a URL and visit a particular web site. If you come across something you don’t like, there’s a cross button on the window, and a handy keyboard shortcut that I like to use (Cmd+W) that closes the window. If you have access to a computer, learn how to effectively use it instead of curtailing the use of others.

    We as Pakistanis need to stop what we do best…pulling each other down.

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  • Talat Haque
    Mar 13, 2012 - 6:16PM

    When will we come of age and be able to place a censor on ourselves, by ourselves, for ourselves!

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  • Faruq
    Mar 14, 2012 - 4:24PM

    There is an elected government, there is a judicial system in the country declared by most as free, the order to address the content filtering applicant came from the supreme court. these are the things most people in the country wanted. I don’t understand why Pakistani’s are now angry with the choice these elected people are making for them.

    everyone of us wont let unwanted people and or things or thoughts in our premises, not in our homes, schools, offices or social places, whats wrong if government wants to do the same? if u have a problem vote for someone else next time.

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  • Bilal
    Mar 15, 2012 - 12:24AM

    if censorship will be restricted to only porn, then “yes” WE SHOULD DO IT,
    Because in our society which is different from west and there are no bars or pubs where you can go freely and have sex with someone after watching porn, as a result after watching these porn people in our country get horny and attempt rape.

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  • Mar 15, 2012 - 7:31PM

    Bilal, how on earth do you think porn works?

    Porn offers an outlet for sexual feelings, that if not addressed, build up to cause frustration. A person who is sexually satisfied is less likely to rape than one who isn’t.

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