Internet access: a human right
IN November, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) attempted to filter 1,500 words out of SMS messages.
The initiative was ridiculed into oblivion, and one thought the government would take a hiatus from clumsy censorship. But no.
The National ICT Research and Development Fund, under the aegis of the Ministry of Information Technology, recently advertised a public tender for the development of an Internet filtering and blocking system. The move indicates how completely out of touch the powers that be are with contemporary Pakistan, the 21st century and democratic values on the whole.
Internet service providers (ISPs), who finance the fund, have defended the filter, arguing that it is not a censorship tool, but a means by which to make existing efforts to block online content more time- and cost-efficient. This is utter nonsense. The power to efficiently and effectively block up to 50 million websites, as per the tender’s demands, is an incentive for widespread online censorship.
Many indications that the government will take improper advantage of a censoring mechanism already exist. Pakistan currently ranks 151st out of a list of 179 countries on a 2011 media freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders. This is hardly the environment in which to introduce an Internet filtering system with the hope that it will be judiciously deployed.
The tender has also been announced at a time when it is clear the authorities are hurting from relatively unrestrained media coverage of their activities: last month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority announced new regulations for private television channels, which prevent the broadcast of material that undermines Pakistan’s sovereignty, compromises the national interest, or ridicules organs of the state. It is also no coincidence that the call for an Internet filter comes the year before a general election — a last-ditch effort to minimise critical discourse about the government in campaign season?
The political motivations behind the tender suggest that the criteria for blocking online content will be harsh and arbitrary. One can expect much benign content to be censored. Clearly, no one at the Ministry of Information Technology is thinking about the fallout of limited information access for students, businesses, scientific researchers and others trying to engage with and compete in an innovative, global marketplace.
It is also worth noting that the Internet filter tender not only foreshadows censorship to come, but also highlights the extent to which it is rampant. Private-sector ISPs are agreeable to financing the filter in response to continued pressure from the civilian government and army to block online content. When talking to free-speech activists, they defend their actions by arguing that the Internet is already being censored, the filter will simply automate the process to save time and money for the ISPs. In sum, censorship is already a fait accompli in Pakistan.
It is appalling that this tender was announced during a civilian government’s tenure. Freedom of speech is a fundamental requirement of a functioning democracy. The fact that this government is willing to pay money for technology that institutionalises censorship speaks poorly of its democratic credentials, its long-term vision for the country, and its aspirations for Pakistan on the international stage.
Pakistan’s luddite politicians may not realise this, but in the 21st century, the freedom of the Internet is a gauge of a country’s genuine commitment to democracy and human rights (lest we forget, the United Nations has declared Internet access to be a human right). This is especially true when governments seek both to censor their citizens and invade their privacy: in addition to blocking websites, the proposed filter will seek to infiltrate encrypted content. If Pakistan goes ahead with this inane plan, its civilian government will be spoken of in the same terms as prior dictatorships: regressive, authoritarian, undemocratic. For a moment, let’s concede that the Pakistan government cannot comprehend that censorship is bad, and that while it stifles dissent in the short run, it sparks social discontent in the long run. There is still no excuse for the government’s failure to think through this initiative strategically.
In the coming years, Pakistan could emerge on the world stage as the country that stood by Iran while the world slapped sanctions on its economy, and that served as an interlocutor for the Afghan Taliban. These approaches serve Pakistan’s national interest, but they do little for its public image or soft power. If Pakistan also gains notoriety for installing a firewall, it will have little claim to any reputation other than that of rogue state or international pariah.
The Internet filter might also destroy Pakistan’s façade of abhorring religious and violent extremism. Consider the websites the government has already blocked: pornography, YouTube, Facebook, Baloch nationalist sites and the online edition of Rolling Stone magazine for publishing an article critiquing military expenditure.
Now consider the websites you can browse with impunity: the home pages of jihadi groups that spew hate speech, incitements to violence, prejudicial content about religious minorities and rival sects, and worse. Pakistan’s ever-declining human rights record has until now been mitigated through perfunctory political rhetoric. A clear pattern of anti-liberal censorship will expose the sham.
One final niggling detail: Internet filters don’t work. The 2009 Iranian election, spreading discontent in China, and the Arab Spring — these events have shown that Internet blocks don’t prevent citizens from using digital and social media technologies for political activism. If the government has genuine concerns about online content, it has to work jointly with ISPs, the media industry, academic institutions and non-governmental media monitoring organisations to minimise the impact and reach of egregious material.
When it came to SMS filtering, civil society mocked the government into retreat. But Internet filtering is no laughing matter — it is nothing less than the denial of a basic human right.
The writer is a freelance journalist.