Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being placed quite high on all the lists that a country must avoid. While it is one of the most corrupt countries with bad governance records, it is also the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Furthermore, we are not far behind the countries that top the lists for suppressing the rights of religious minorities and we have high maternal and infant mortality rates. In addition to all of this, our government has sought proposals to build a firewall that will filter and block a whopping 50 million undesirable URLs in an attempt to restrict internet access which we have always had.
Censorship is not alien to Pakistan or to this region. Burma, Yemen, Bahrain and Qatar all monitor political discussion and access to information in their countries. The ‘Great Firewall’ that engulfs over a billion-strong in China, is known to all. Governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE also filter content, which they deem unsuitable for the cultural and religious sensibilities of their societies. Unlike all these countries –– which are either monarchies or authoritarian regimes –– however, Pakistan is a multiparty democracy.
The proposal calls for a blanket ban on pornographic and undesirable content, but who gets to decide what will be tabled under the category of ‘pornography’? In the past, even high-profile social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have been called dating websites that spread immorality, to curb people’s access to them.
The government has already blocked alternative news websites such as Baloch Hal and others featuring stories from Balochistan that do not get any space in mainstream media. Who knows what else will be bracketed ‘undesirable’ once the filters are in place. The centralised nature of the database under the proposed filtering system, will enable the government to do this efficiently. It should also be noted that the proposal does not call for any oversight or contribution from the elected representatives, human rights groups, civil society organisations or any of the consumer groups.
As part of their licensing agreement with the Pakistan Telecom Authority, all internet service providers (ISP) are required to donate money to the National Information and Communication Technology Research and Development Fund, which called for the proposal. As the ISPs get their money from the users, it will be the users who end up paying for the cyber surveillance against themselves. How ironic!
In the day and age when most people are moving away from traditional sources of information, entertainment and employment, and turning to the World Wide Web for it all, they will find ways to circumvent the government ban, and all the money spent on the project would go down the drain.
Life with a firewall which monitors content is just like living with a cyber nanny who has the authority to slap your wrists if you say something or seek information that she does not like –– what adult would want to live like that?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2012.