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Our new firewall

This June brings a beast of an altogether different kind to our digital biota

By Salar Rashid |
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PUBLISHED June 24, 2024

June does not often bring anything but unrelenting heat – the sun bears down on the land till water hisses and boils and the last drops of green are bleached from the grass. It would’ve been too wishful, perhaps, for us to think ‘all’ we had to contend with was the summer heat, but reality often makes it a point to mock our wishes.

This June brings a beast of an altogether different kind to our digital biota. The Great Firewall of Chinese fame now hulks its way across the Karakoram, eager to do the bidding of its new masters.

Conceived some twenty-six years ago, the Great Firewall was a project designed to insulate the Chinese people from ideas and information deemed ‘undesirable’ by the Chinese Communist Party. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, a parallel internet emerged in the Firewall’s shadow. The Great Firewall’s hunger wasn’t directed merely towards websites like Wikipedia or YouTube. It devoured everything in its way that could grant access to information not approved of by the state – G-mail, OneDrive, Dropbox, CNN, Washington Post, even search engines like Google and generative AI’s like ChatGPT, disappeared into its maw. That which remained was vigilantly monitored and regularly culled.

Party mouthpieces claimed the Firewall allowed domestic companies to flourish, that it warded the people from danger and unrest, that it prevented a pristine society from decaying.

Let us not mince words. The Firewall was not built out of a desire to protect and nurture the local digital economy, nor was it built to ward off evil. It exists fundamentally to grant the state control of the crudest kind – over information, over access, over speech and thought, and ultimately, over reality.

So what’s changed that the state saw fit to let the Firewall expand its hunting grounds to our land? The establishment’s attempts to build a counter-narrative failed. Their attempts to wrench support away from their erstwhile companion failed. Their attempts to sap his spirit and stall his momentum failed. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, they have now decided that the only way to win this escalating chess-match is to breathe deeply, look their opponent in the eye, and smash the board into his face.

What is truly concerning about this turn of events is not that this decision is rooted in the same kind of reactionary thinking that led us here in the first place, nor is it that this strategy is absent entirely of the very values that make a nation democratic. It is that this decision will come at great cost while accomplishing none of its objectives.

The practical issues of implementing the Great Firewall in Pakistan are myriad. For one, the lack of technical expertise among our people means that the very operation of such a sophisticated digital barrier will inevitably rely on Chinese technicians and expertise. Even if we were to assume that they can fill in as a stop-gap measure, it would remain the least of our worries.

The sheer breadth of websites and information sources the Firewall has to block to be of any effectiveness is hard to overstate. In the absence of those applications and websites, the Chinese market had to evolve domestically – local device manufacturing companies, search engines, social media networks, e-commerce services and so on, stepped into the void left by their proscribed Western counterparts. This, too, took decades. The Party had implemented such rules shortly after the internet became widely available in China, not decades after, so local businesses had time to become the giants they are today.

Pakistan, to put it simply, lacks the robustness and innovation to fill such a gap – our businesses are ill-prepared to replace the functionality and services provided by global platforms. A country that cannot even settle its most basic contract enforcement issues cannot host the kind of digital revolution required to fill such a vacuum. Indeed, China holds the ability to dictate terms to titans of the digital age because of the sheer size of its market and the share it holds in the global economy. Pakistan holds no such claim. The vacuum left by the Great Firewall would stifle growth and innovation rather than spur the local digital economy.

Even more germane to the issue, perhaps, is the nature of their opponent’s popularity. Those who support him, whether he be on a podium or in jail, have reposed in him their earnest, sincere trust. Such conviction is not easily swayed by mere censorship. Blocking access to information may hinder organizational efforts, but it will not erase the beliefs that have already taken root. Indeed, part of the Firewall’s success in China is owed to the fact that the internet was brought under Party control from virtually the moment it became a viable medium for mobilising dissent.

Had our elite the chance to silence those who cry out against them, they would. Would they now ask his people to condemn to oblivion that which has already been heard and touched and felt? Would they now ask them, having peered past the veil, to unsee what has already been seen? In attempting to draw a curtain around that which they wish to keep hidden, they have instead put a blindfold upon themselves, and in the ensuing darkness claimed victory.

Beyond the practical challenges lies the profound moral concern of what the Great Firewall represents. Its implementation marks an ultimate return to a system of control and confrontation. The Wall will not merely block that which is morally undesirable, it will cast all that is distinct from the will of the state as alien, irredeemable, and reprehensible, forcing us to retreat from the very values that underpin our moral and democratic aspirations.

It is a strategy that asks of fear what it should of patience. It is a strategy that encourages othering, not dialogue. It is a strategy that alienates the very populace it seeks to endear, fostering resistance rather than loyalty. On this, there can be no debate: the suppression of dissent does not eliminate discontent; it merely drives it underground, where it festers and grows till it bleeds into the open, poisoning the very pool it intends to purify.

Let us be clear. The role of the establishment in ensuring Pakistan's security is undeniable. As the nation's bulwark against threats within and without, it has provided the stability and security needed for growth and development. Yet, the strategy it now employs risks severing the bond with the very people it aims to protect.

To navigate away from this precipice, the politics of confrontation must be abandoned by all actors. We must return to a foundation built on some inviolable cardinal principles—truths that uphold democratic values, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms. These principles should delineate the boundaries of power, allowing the system to function without the taint of vengeance or retribution.

This redefined path requires will and courage to break from the patterns of the past. It calls for a collective effort to rebuild trust in our institutions by demonstrating that power can be exercised responsibly and justly. This, above all else, is the key to fulfilling our moral destiny.


The author is a student of law at King’s College London. He can be reached at salar.rashid@kcl.ac.uk.