Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s plan to block both Google and YouTube in the country for their alleged refusal to cooperate with authorities in tracking down terrorists is alarming. Even if Malik has legitimate concerns, which is far from clear, blocking these two websites would be an overreaction of epic proportions. Hurting all internet users because Google (which also owns YouTube) is not providing information that the government wants is tantamount to censorship.
It is extremely unlikely that Google will cave in to the government’s threats. The company pulled out of China rather than acquiesce to the demands of its government. Google is not like local and multinational companies in Pakistan that happily hand out private information like cell phone records to the agencies. For it to give out information about email accounts would require the Pakistan government to conclusively prove that such information is vital to fighting terrorists and not simply a case of a government power grab. The government should also keep in mind that it is virtually impossible to stop tech-savvy militants. They can simply open different email accounts if their original accounts are shut down and the level of encryption they use in their communications can be difficult to decode, even by Google.
What makes Malik’s threats even more frightening is our previous history of clamping down on the internet. At various times, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia have all been blocked, usually because religious sentiments are supposedly at risk of being hurt. The problem here is that we cannot rely on the courts to curb the government’s desire for censorship, since the courts have shown themselves to be the most capricious censors of all. The only hope now, is that the interior minister realises that blocking Google and Gmail will hurt business and be an unconscionable infringement of our rights.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2011.