The success of news media online depends largely on Facebook likes and Twitter posts, making users of social media the “new news editors”, said a speaker at a discussion here at the Lahore University of Management Sciences on Thursday.
“It is these websites which determine what is to be read and what popular news is,” said Lums Vice Chancellor Dr Adil Najam, addressing a seminar titled Regulation of the News Media on Internet, the sixth in the university’s Initiative on Internet and Society programme.
About national laws regulating the Internet, Dr Najam said it was necessary that they be informed by an international perspective, since the Internet was a global medium. “The scale of this issue is so big that it is impossible to think of it only in the local or the regional perspective,” he said.
He said that apart from a growing number of Internet users, there were also a growing number of devices with which users could go online. Hence, it was important that the tools of regulation also be larger in scale.
Bans and consequences
Muhammad Fareed Zaffar, an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science, pointed out that people had quickly figured out how to circumvent the ban on YouTube via proxy servers. “A few students were able to learn how to access YouTube after the ban, and now every single one of my students is able to access it,” he said. “The banning and blocking of websites is a futile exercise because people are eventually going to find a way around it,” Zaffar said. He added that there was a lot of educational content on YouTube and many professors and students used it as a resource.
A recent order from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to mobile phone companies to suspend cheap late night call rates – because “they are against social norms” – also came up for discussion.
Osama Siddique, associate professor at the Department of Law and Policy, said that the decision could be seen as un-participatory and an infringement of the right to free speech. He said Pakistan should not become a “nanny state”.
The participants said while the government should step in where it felt that advertisements were misleading or exploitative of young people, it should not hand out blanket bans which restricted civil liberties.
Siddique cited the popular backlash against morning television show host Maya Khan over an episode where she apparently aimed to catch young couples together in public parks as an example of news media being regulated by Internet users.
He said that an online public campaign initiated by a citizen watchdog group had led to the removal of the host from the show.
“The aim was not to fire the host, but to put a check on the vigilantism” of checking up on couples in parks, he said.
Siddique said television anchors should not be allowed to use their position to abuse freedoms of speech and movement. “In our society, the de-contextualisation of a situation in which a young boy and a girl are sitting together can lead even to murder,” he said.
Dr Najam said that while a small group of people could affect positive change, as they had done in the campaign against Maya Khan, they could also affect negative change. “Social media is inherently unsocial and in situations where a small group can have such a large impact, the idea seems very dangerous,” he added.
Saad Tariq, a teaching assistant and research associate at the Department of Law and Policy, said it was essential to identify what the Internet was being used for in Pakistan. “We need to look at specifics and address definitions and figures in order to understand exactly what it is that Internet users in Pakistan are doing over the Internet,” he said.
Answering his queries, Badar Khushnood, the country representative of Google, said that there were 22 million Internet users in Pakistan, with 7.5 million on Facebook, 1 million on Twitter and another 1.2 to 1.4 million on LinkedIn. He said most Internet users were in the 18 to 25 age bracket.
The roundtable discussion was moderated by Abid Hussain Imam, assistant professor at the Department of Law and Policy at the Mushtaq Ahmed Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The next roundtable discussion under the IIS programme is scheduled to take place next month.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2012.