On November 19, many users online started reporting their inability to access the website of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) in Pakistan. After an outcry on social media, the ban was lifted on November 22. According to Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK), a new directive was received from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ordering them to unblock the website.
IMDb is considered as an authoritative source for movies, television and celebrity content and is used worldwide for entertainment. Why the Pakistani government blocked this site in the first place is not yet known because no reason was given officially. There was speculation that it may have to do with an upcoming film on the life of the Prophet Noah. However, nothing can be said for sure as IMDb host millions of links any of which could have triggered this action by Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology. Of late, Pakistan has been in the media spotlight because of its vigorous efforts to curb the internet and attempts to purchase advanced monitoring technologies. A recent country report titled Freedom on the Net 2013 indicated major concerns about the government’s restrictive policies.
Although it is cumbersome for people to gain access to websites that have been blocked, it is not something that can’t be undone. Everyone who is active online sooner or later finds out how to use proxies to access such sites, and these proxies are always steps ahead of blocking technologies. The actual problem is the tendency by the government to block websites by the thousands and doing this in a completely non-transparent manner with no public discourse. Regardless of how little the government seems to be interested in transparency and accountability, citizens have the right to demand answers and they should try and exercise this right.
The Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) takes the decision to block any website. This decision is then communicated to the PTA by the Ministry of Information, Technology and Telecom (MoITT). The PTA then issues directives to the ISPs for blocking the website. We do not know about the existence of any guidelines or criteria on which the websites are judged so that is one aspect of the non-transparent nature of the process.
The fact that the government continues to avoid disclosing to the public the procedures and guidelines it employs to block websites means that it becomes very hard to find out why bans even happen — a case in point being the one on IMDB for the last two to three days. The point is not that there is a ban for a few hours or a few days, it is that people have a right to know why a ban is in place.
Technically, ISPs are the ones who actually pull the plug on any website. However, as the MoITT has proposed — and is reportedly working on — a filtering mechanism will selectively block distinct pages and videos and not entire websites. It is not yet known what role ISPs themselves will have if such a process is put in place. If past experience is anything to go by, these filters will not only be used to track content, they will also serve as blanket filtering tool.
One vague reason often cited by officials is that websites that “hurt public sentiment” are liable to be blocked. However, that doesn’t explain at all why the IMDb site was blocked since it is unclear how it could have ‘hurt public sentiment’. What is also disappointing is the fact that the PML-N government is showing no signs that it intends to take the public into confidence regarding such issues.
Rather than investing in new technological innovations that can help spread among citizens the use of the internet, the Pakistan government seems focused on trampling on the public’s right to information and further restricting internet usage.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2013.