Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being placed quite high on all the lists that a country must avoid. While it is one the most corrupt countries with bad governance record, it is also the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism in. In addition, we are not far behind the countries that top the lists for suppressing the rights of religious minorities and have high maternal and infant mortality rates. Despite all this, Pakistan was doing ok as far as freedom to internet access was concerned. Not any more, as the government is just done seeking proposals to build a firewall that will filter and block a whopping50 million undesirable URLs.
Censorship is not alien to Pakistan. The country has suffered numerous dictatorships and emergencies to be familiar with restriction and suppression. Nor it is the only country in the region that is trying its hand at internet filtering. Burma, Yemen, Bahrain, and Qatar monitor political discussion and access to information in their countries. The “great Firewall” that engulfs over a billion strong China is known to all. Governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and UAE also filter content which they deem unsuitable to the cultural and religious sensibilities of their societies. Unlike all these countries which are either monarchies or authoritarian regimes, Pakistan is a multiparty democracy. Paradoxical is the fact that the political party currently forming the government not only claims but also has a history of battling dictators and censorship in the past.
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? Feminist and gay rights websites have been filed under pornography in the regimes that block cyber content to limit people’s access to gender awareness and alternative lifestyles in the past. Even high profile social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have been called dating websites spreading immorality to curb 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 and will be blocked. The centralized nature of the database under the proposed filtering system will enable the government to do it efficiently. It should also be noted that proposal does not call for any oversight or contribution from the elected representatives, rights groups, civil society organizations or any of the consumer groups.
As part of their licensing agreement with Pakistan Telecom Authority, all the internet service providers donate money for the National ICT R&D Fund that called for the proposal. As the ISPs get their money from the users, it will be the users who will 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, people 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 an cyber nanny who has the authority to slap your wrists if you said something or sought information that she does not like, what sensible adult would want to live like that?
First published in The Express Tribune