LAST week, unobtrusively, access from Pakistan to certain Facebook pages was restricted. Those that run these pages only realised what had happened when they started being unable to access them.
At first they thought they’d fallen victim to hackers. Soon, however, the picture started to look murkier: the indications were that access to these pages from within the country had been curtailed by Facebook itself, apparently at the government’s request, through an already available agreement with the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).
Of course there’s much information and opinion on the internet accessible in Pakistan and the rest of the world that is repugnant to all norms of decency and is often on the wrong side of the law. There is material that ought indeed be clamped down upon.
Consider, for example, the many sites where the actions of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed (and proud) killer of Lahore governor Salmaan Taseer, are condoned, lauded, and held up as an example worthy of being emulated. There are sites where people incite violence against certain sections of society, on the basis of religious leanings and political ideologies.
Groups with extremist views, some of which are in fact dispensers of death and terror on a large scale, are free to disseminate their views to a wide internet audience; they export their noxious ideologies, and put up photos and videos that lay proud claim to the most unspeakable of acts. State intervention can be defended when material that glorifies criminal activity, and promotes hate speech, is uploaded for general consumption.
But the Facebook pages to which access was limited weren’t of the sort described above. One of them was that of the rock band Laal, which allies itself with liberalism and progressivism, and which has made a name for itself through the poetry of dissent by greats such as Habib Jalib and Faiz. Another was a page called ‘Talibans are zalimans’, which translates to ‘the Taliban are cruel’. There were a couple of other similarly oriented pages.
By the time the news media caught up with events, it was mainly over. The pages were back, with the PTA saying on Friday that “we have no agreement with Facebook whatsoever, it’s a pack of lies”.
But Facebook confirmed the move the same day, saying the page had been blocked in Pakistan at Islamabad’s request. Further, the site has its own page where it gives information about government requests, and it tells us that 162 pieces of content were restricted for viewership from within Pakistan between July and December 2013. From time to time, internet users have found access to some pages restricted, for varying amounts of time. Once, it was IMDB. At another time, it was certain Wikipedia links.
That raises a couple of very serious concerns. First, there is the matter of internet freedoms, and the arbitrary way in which the state is taking material offline. Where is due process? If any material is considered by the authorities to be in contravention of the law, shouldn’t the persons deemed responsible be informed and asked, just as they would have been had they faced prosecution? Shouldn’t the courts be involved?
Should a state regulatory body have the indiscriminate power to restrict whatever material it sees fit, without the public or anyone else being informed, and without arguments from either side? Obviously not, since that raises the very real possibility — one that governments through the decades in Pakistan have resorted to — of clamping down on political and other sorts of dissent, alternate voices, and people’s freedoms of belief. In no way is such shady removal of access to selected content defensible.
Second and more worryingly, if the state carves out a role for itself as the arbiter of what should and should not be said (whether online or elsewhere), what signals does it send out when it chooses to act against voices that stand for progressiveness, and leaves untouched those that incite hatred and violence?
At the very least, in doing so it quietly positions itself with the conservative right which has over the past decade increasingly hardened its stance and leaned towards extremism and violence. At worst, the state emboldens and empowers these divisive elements, and then colludes further by silencing dissenting voices. There are many, many sites on the internet where hate material is available. How come that is receiving no attention?
These are grave issues that go to the core of the way the state imagines the Pakistan of the future. They merit more attention and debate than a brief furore over a few sites that will, now that the state has backed down, soon fade away. The penetration of the internet will only grow, and nonsensical efforts at regulation now will have serious consequences in the years to come.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2014