The big ban theory

October 20, 2013

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— Spider Magazine illustration.
— Spider Magazine illustration.

From the confines of her room, Uzma Riaz has been successfully running a small business for the last few years. She describes herself as a ‘full-time mother’ with an interest in fashion designing, bridal dresses being her niche. Most of her customers are people of Pakistani origin based in Western European countries. She says her laptop fitted with audio/video facilities and an internet connection is the backbone of her business. She talks to her clients through Skype and Viber, but is now worried.

“The government is talking about blocking Skype, Viber and other applications. Not sure if they are actually going to do it but they have left many of us worrying. Why does one expect the most foolish decisions from them?” she says explaining how a ban would prove costly.

“Some of my clients discuss the design of their bridal dress for over an hour. A video call on Skype does the job brilliantly without incurring any costs. Imagine if Skype is blocked, my phone bill alone would probably force me to rethink this business.”

The government’s decision to slap bans on various websites has meant more than just economic losses.

“With the children and other household chores I simply do not get the time to watch TV. I used to watch some Indian soaps on YouTube after putting the children to bed. But that does not happen anymore thanks to the ban on YouTube”.

The government’s censorship has not just taken its toll on economy and entertainment but education as well.

Bilal Lodhia works at the IT department of a Karachi-based private university. An avid reader, he spends much of his spare time reading and watching educational videos online. He says the government’s “senseless bans” have restricted access to some quality educational material that we could get our hands on for free. Lodhia laments that the government has no right to moral policing.

“They have to stop wasting taxes collected from us on things we don’t need. Access to information is a personal choice, not a communal one. You gain more credibility as a democracy if you waste less money on censoring technology,” he says.

But the government’s utilisation of technology to censor material is itself questionable. While the government has conveniently restricted access to websites owned by some religious minorities, Baloch news & rights groups and gender-oriented groups, it has not been able to tackle the online jihadis.

Hundreds of militant Islamist websites, blogs, forums and much more continue to operate providing a complete package — from ideological brainwashing to manuals on physical training and bomb-making. Some claim that the government is specifically targeting certain secular groups while giving a free hand to the militant Islamist groups.

While such allegations do have substance, the reality is much more complicated.

Tariq Habib, an investigative journalist specialising in Islamist militancy, has interviewed some of the most high profile leaders of Al-Qaeda and Taliban.

“This perception is true to some extent. Our state narrative classifies jihadis into two categories: the good and the bad. The so-called good groups do enjoy state patronage. From openly raising funds to activism on the internet — they are given a free hand. The groups that fall in the bad category do not necessarily enjoy such perks,” he explains.

Habib’s views are in conformity with the findings of Dawn. The most prominent websites and social media pages of “bad” jihadis have been repeatedly shut down only to pop-up again shortly afterwards. Most recently the Facebook page of TTP’s outspoken member Ehsanullah Ehsan was closed down for the fourth time. His Twitter accounts were also closed down in the past only to bounce back again. Same is the case with Bab-ul-Islam, one of the largest jihadi collection online from Al-Qaeda to regional jihadi groups.

“Minority groups feel they are not doing anything illegal by operating their websites and hence there is hardly any contingency planning. It comes as a shock to them when their websites are shut down. The jihadis on the other hand operate in an underground mode. They know they would be monitored so they often use website mirroring software and several back-up arrangements which reduce their downtime. So basically you shut them down and they are back up again fairly quickly,” says Umair Ahmad, a Lahore-based network administrator.

While he highlights the tech savvy nature of the modern jihadis, he does accord due credit to the government.

“I’m not sure if the claim that the government deliberately gives free hand to some jihadi groups is true, but what I do know is that there are many incompetent people holding technical positions in the government when they hardly know the basics of this business. These government positions should have been filled by technocrats,” he says.

But an official of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) requesting anonymity defends the government.

“We have the technical capability to shut down or block many of these websites and we do. You have to bear in mind that sometimes it is more beneficial in the long run to allow some of these jihadi websites to operate while we monitor them and gather valuable information,” he says.

The militants on the other hand do not seem too worried about steps taken by the government.

“The government may have all the resources at its disposal but we have the brains,” chuckles Sufyan, a member of Umar Media, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s media team.