How to say yes to online censorship

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There are two opposing narratives being discussed about the government’s call for a national level internet blocking and filtering system, and both must be understood to find a path forward.

On the one hand, NGOs, internet monitoring groups, parts of the press and civil society are up in arms against the threat this proposal poses to freedom of expression and the right to information. On the other hand, we have a second narrative by Internet Service Providers (ISP) representatives, IT experts and tech bloggers who claim that the intent of a system capable of blocking up to 50 million sites is to speed up and ensure accuracy of the process, as currently ISPs have to manually block sites — a tedious and error-prone process. ISPs and the authorities are flabbergasted to find their efforts to streamline this process being ‘demonised’ by ‘propaganda’ aimed at ‘twisting’ their efforts into a freedom of speech or the right to information issue.

According to this narrative, the National ICT Research and Development Fund, which floated the proposal, is merely trying to offer local IT companies an opportunity to develop this system. How can something that creates jobs and enhances the capacity of local companies while not introducing anything new (policy-wise) be bad for Pakistan? This must be a conspiracy to defame the nation. This narrative also includes the cultural mantras of ‘porn destroys the moral fabric of society’, ‘blasphemous content cannot be tolerated’, ‘Baloch separatists should not be allowed a voice’. How can this narrative be reconciled with that of a government out to clamp down on the internet?

It cannot be denied that http://www.rollingstone.com is blocked due to a single anti-Pakistan army article. It cannot be denied that Baloch news websites are blocked en masse, with no accountability regarding who judged what specific content to be ‘too separatist’. It cannot be denied that all of Facebook was banned for hosting blasphemous content causing great harm to the fledgling local online economy. Now, doesn’t the narrative of an imminent threat to the internet by a better, faster blocking system make sense? It does.

Now to reconcile the two narratives. Yes, completely uncensored internet does not exist —there are things that need to be censored. This much should be acceptable to all. But how do we choose what is to be censored and how should it be censored? Sure, an automated system makes sense, but given the government’s history, this system should not be allowed without explicit involvement and monitoring by independent bodies. There is a trust deficit that the government needs to fill by taking the public on board and speaking directly to the pressure groups they feel are ‘conspiring’ against them. Additionally, the system must work for the public good and not cater to public sentiment i.e., sites cannot be banned due to pressure from a public outcry as was seen in the blanket ban on Facebook.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) must issue a list of the blocked websites with explanations for who blocked the site and for what reason, under which law, along with the length of the ban. No ban should be put in place without court approval and due discourse with independent entities set up to safeguard the rights of the citizens. Any ban on a site should be preceded by a prior warning sent to the webmaster, possibly including a two/three strike system. A notice of an implemented ban should be sent to the site owners and announced publicly and there should be a clearly established system for challenging the ban.

As yet, the PTA and the government have made no overtures to suggest they want to be held accountable or want to develop a system after consultation with the citizens they serve. Till they do, the ongoing and upcoming censorship of the internet in Pakistan must be fought tooth and nail.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2012.

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