KARACHI: The Sindh government decision on Thursday to clamp a ban on major messaging apps for three months has drawn an angry reaction from ordinary users, industry leaders and security experts, with all of them arguing that while the restriction, which can be easily circumvented, will not only badly hit small entrepreneurs but will also fail to achieve the stated aim of targeting criminals unless the overall security system is strengthened.
Aziza Qayyum, a frequent Skype user, says she was shocked when she learnt about the decision announced by Sharjeel Memon, Sindh information minister, at a press conference in the evening.
I often use Skype to talk to my bedridden aunt residing in the United States. Since she cannot travel to Pakistan anymore, Skype is the most effective way to communicate with her and her family. Along with video calling service, it sort of simulated a face-to-face conversation.
Faiza Hasan, a TV actor, says that people from her fraternity frequently use these mobile phone applications for auditions and meeting potential actors. Indeed, Meenu Gaur, the writer and producer of the currently popular film Zinda Bhaag, had told Dawn earlier that she had auditioned the lead female actor of the movie, Amna Ilyas, over Skype.
Instead of using technology to go forward we are sliding downward.
Immediately after the information minister’s announcement, people took to the social media such as Facebook and Twitter to vent their rage.
Hashtags were immediately created such as #Viber, #Skype, #SharjeelMemon, #Whatsapp and #Tango among many others. Umer Pirzada tweeted: “No Youtube. No WhatsApp. No Skype. Who’s running this government?” Zara Hassan tweeted: “This is when you know the country has gone down the drain. Blocking WhatsApp, Skype, What’s next? Blocking oxygen?” Another user updated his Facebook status as: “Let’s ban double sawari. Let’s block cell phones. Let’s shut down Skype, WhatsApp and Viber. Let’s stop all forms of movement and communication for everyone.”
The young PPP patron-in-chief, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, also could not resist the lure of twitter, though he tweeted defending the decision: “Dear Burgers, Sorry abt Skype/Viber/Whtsapp. Excuse us while we catch some terrorists and save some lives. SMS for 3months. Sincerely BBZ”
Mr Bhutto-Zardari was bitterly criticized for describing opponents of the ban on messaging apps as “burgers”.
Technology leaders argued that the restriction on messaging apps was pointless since it could easily be circumvented by criminals and other users and would instead affect small-sized entrepreneurs and academia among many others.
“Small to medium-sized entrepreneurs are major users of these apps for their businesses. It is often used for meetings and conferences between cities in Pakistan when a person is unable to make it to the conference or the meeting for whatever reason,” says Jehan Ara, president of Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA). She adds that even the academia uses Skype to communicate between universities and other messaging apps are used to talk to each other when mobile phone services are not working. She says,
We take these apps for granted now. Taking it away will cause problems.
“Even though YouTube was banned a year ago yet people found a way to use it and are using it,” says Sabeen Mahmud of PeaceNiche and T2F. “Anybody who is a little bit technical or even if is not will find someone who has technical knowledge and will find ways around it,” adds Ms Mahmud. Besides, if the government wants to track down criminals, they can do so by tracking calls on Viber and Whatsapp which requires the users to give their phone number, she says.
“The security strategy of the Sindh government is incomprehensible,” says Ms Mahmud. Security experts maintain that clamping down on popular messaging apps is going to be an ineffective strategy since it will not be able to achieve the supposed plan of targeting criminals unless the overall security system was strengthened. “When you [Sindh government] do these things, you should have collated some kind of data that indicated how many criminals were using Skype, Viber and other smart apps and for what purpose. Do you think the criminals will go on any such forum to announce that they are going to kill someone!” says Jameel Yusuf, former Citizens-Police Liaison Committee chief, who was infuriated over the government decision. The best way would have been to enter the system that is via these apps and track them down, he adds.
He says the provincial government can learn from the anti-crime strategy employed by the United Kingdom to reduce and prevent crime. “The police in the UK are never in a hurry. They monitor the movements of criminals and terrorists for however long it takes. They will even take out photographs among other steps and finally they will quietly carry out an operation in which a team of them raids and takes the group out. And what do we do here? The operation to target criminal elements just began over two weeks ago and we do this,” says Mr Yusuf.
For crimes to decline, convictions need to increase, emphasizes Mr Yusuf. “If they want to nab criminals then they must strengthen the security system.”
As for the future course of action, P@SHA president Jehan Ara says that her association will first try to meet Mr Memon and convince him to take back the decision and if that strategy does not work then she will try to convince her association members to take legal action. “We have been quiet for too long now. Technology has no borders and our government’s policies instead of encouraging our growth are hampering it. What they have done is against human rights and against business rights,” she says.