A recent survey conducted by Pew Research has stirred the dreaded old debate on whether internet users in Pakistan care much about internet censorship. The result from the survey reportedly reveals that people surveyed in Pakistan were least supportive of an open internet.
The media reporting of the survey has largely focused on how “Pakistanis do not care about internet rights” just as they don’t care about democracy or human rights. Coverage on the report will have you believe we are the next China as far as internet freedom is concerned.
As much as the authorities would like it to be, we are still far from completely adapting the China Model of internet censorship; but do not worry we are headed there.
To quote verbatim from the report:
“Meanwhile, support is lower than might be expected in Russia and Pakistan, given the percentage of people who use the internet in those two nations. Other Pew Research surveys have also found relatively low support for democratic rights and institutions in Russia and Pakistan. Another caveat in interpreting the results for Pakistan is that a large percentage of respondents (62%) offer no opinion on this question.”
The PEW survey is more about low access to internet in Pakistan rather than about the citizens’ opinion on increasing controls on the internet.
An exaggerated statistic informs us that 12 million out of 180 million people have access to the internet in Pakistan. It remains the only country in the world that continues to block access to Youtube in reaction to the release of movie, Innocence of Muslims.
Despite the PEW survey’s explanation on why results from Pakistan reflect low support, the results are not surprising, given the horrendously low internet access in Pakistan.
Like most other things, the internet access narrative has also been deeply politicised and the debate on open access heavily polarised.
For rights’ advocates, journalists, students, entrepreneurs, businesses and even policymakers, the mere debate on the unblocking of Youtube is riddled with fear of being too contentious. It is not just YouTube, whatever little debate exists on internet freedom is largely curbed and silenced as unwanted, ill-suited and controversial.
The Government in Pakistan does not censor the web - rather it follows a strategic covert control model, where the public stance of government officials is all for dissent but only against immorality, blasphemy, obscenity and our all time favourite, national security!
Under such a strategy, any and all opinion against the blocking of content is framed as anti-religion, blasphemous, obscene and borderline treason.
What began with the blocking of Facebook in 2010 has, in 2014, become a legitimate fear for most supporting an open internet in Pakistan.
In 2012, when the Government brazenly published advertisments calling for proposals to build a “URL filtration and blocking system” the public excuse was “getting rid of pornography”, hence, waging a war on everything immoral on the internet.
Any and all concerns of how such a system can compromise the privacy of individual users, allow for blanket surveillance, and possibly disrupt the banking system in Pakistan was overlooked.
Also read | YouTube ban: Running out of excuses
A concerted campaign that was able to reverse the Government's plans in 2012 now faces a new challenge - the concocted fight against 'immorality' now has a new more contentious front; fighting blasphemy on the web.
ISPs and regulators bending over backwards to block access to any possible content that may be upsetting, meanwhile dissent, political censorship and free speech become collateral damage.
Take for example the blocking of the movie database IMDB, while the ban was reversed shortly after receiving complaints, users are left wondering why the site was even blocked in the first place? Was it to block access to a documentary revealing military advances in Balochistan; the page to the review remains blocked.
Perhaps most importantly, why is the government so insistent on installing filters despite resistance from experts the world over?
The relatively low concern for internet censorship in Pakistan says less about the citizens desire for open access and more about limited access and the politicisation of the issue. When a stance for the opening up of a video portal is equated with blasphemy, how many can be expected to speak up? Especially, when only a handful have access in the first place.
Here’s where we stand as the world moves toward faster and widespread internet access: The promised 3G networks meant to roll out in 2008 are still in process while neighbouring Afghanistan has 3G nationwide, India is rolling out 4G in specific cities and Nepal has 3G in all major cities.
Pakistan ranked a low 105 out of 144 countries in a 2013 report by the World Economic Forums Global Information Technology, in terms of overall networked readiness, with India on 68.
For the Government, however, this seems to be a matter of little concern.
The fact that the IT industry remains one of the most profitable and fast paced in the country does nothing to influence the powers that be to focus on increasing access rather than manipulating and hence, throttling it.
The issue at hand is not about apathy towards internet freedom but hypocrisy, bigotry and most of all, the incompetence of our leadership.