A leaked confidential draft of a plan by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) indicates that the government intends to put in place a draconian system of monitoring and controlling the internet, a system which would greatly curtail freedom of users in the country, complete with dark Orwellian undertones. Needless to say, the document obtained by advocacy group Bytes for All has begun to make rounds online, leaving many worried about the possibilities of such a system being actualised.
The draft states that blasphemous content found online has created ‘dismay and discomfort’ among the government and people of Pakistan. It says that although websites had been blocked, blasphemous material had been replicated all over the internet and was easily accessible through a number of means, and that it has become imperative to monitor and control content in Pakistan. Building off this, the PTA has suggested a new policy guideline and the formation of a complaint cell and an evaluation committee which will monitor and block objectionable material. While such suggestions hint at a major crackdown on the internet in Pakistan, the thought police undertones become all too clear in the details of what material may be banned by the PTA in the future. To cite just a few of the more worrying guidelines, any or all of the following could be grounds for blocking of websites:
1. Websites that carry “objectionable content”.
2. Sites that bring into contempt the country or its people so as to undermine integrity and solidarity of the state.
3. Sites that carry material contemptuous of the defence forces, the police or any other institution of the government of Pakistan which divulge any secret information relating to defence and other services.
4. Sites that have propaganda in favour of any foreign state having bearing on any point of disputes or against any friendly foreign state.
5. And sites that hurt “national sentiment”.
If this draft is indeed part of the PTA’s upcoming plan to protect its citizens from blasphemous material, it is a poor one, an astonishing one, a sad one. If the PTA has even half the resources necessary to begin implementation of the above guidelines, it would mean a blanket ban on potentially millions of websites. There are many disturbing questions to be asked of such a policy. What is the definition of ‘objectionable content’? Why even bother to present other guidelines if this one will remain open to interpretation as a catch-all for the banning of material?
What is the definition of ‘brings contempt to the country’? Or for that matter, ‘hurts national sentiment’? Would this article count as an attempt to ‘divulge any secret information relating to defence and other services’ in its online form? There is little, I feel, that can be added to the debate on what to do with blasphemous content online, as we have already witnessed a huge outpouring of sentiment by the people of Pakistan in online forums including this newspaper’s website’s own comments section. Suffice it to say that the need of the hour now is less words, more action and more interaction between the authorities and pillars of state that govern the people, and the people themselves. We, as a nation, have to determine whether we are willing to hand over our freedom to the government in order to protect ourselves from information we construe as dangerous and harmful. Additionally, if it is found that the voice against such all-encompassing guidelines is in the minority, who will protect the rights of the minorities?