The night before celebrations of Pakistan Day, March 23, news began to spread on Twitter that Pakistani internet users were not being able to access WordPress, arguably the world’s most popular and widely used free blogging and publishing platform and content management system.
Thousands of Pakistanis use WordPress to host their blogs, and many software developers use WordPress tools to create websites as part of their business activities.
Quickly, users began to speculate that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) had blocked WordPress blogs for reasons of “security” relating to Pakistan Day, and that the threat was so grave it couldn’t even be elucidated. Instead of clarifying their position, PTA claimed they had not blocked WordPress, even though customers of several major ISPs posted screenshots of the block page they got on their browsers when attempting to access the main WordPress site.
The move was seemingly reversed within two days, but there’s no guarantee it can’t happen again in the future.
Pakistan’s internet users are still sore from the YouTube ban, which is now three years old. The government just last month stated that YouTube was to remain blocked “indefinitely” because experts had failed to find a way to filter out “blasphemous” content. People have found ways to get around the ban by using VPNs, or virtual private networks, which disguise a Pakistani IP and allow access to material the government deems too ‘offensive’ for them to view.
But this regressive way of dealing with information in the digital age, by blocking and censoring it completely, has offended many internet users who resent this infringement on their right to access other, valuable information that YouTube provides — chemistry lectures, religious talks, children’s educational programmes. And the short interruption to WordPress was a sharp reminder that Pakistani citizens’ digital rights are not guaranteed.
Organisations like the Digital Rights Foundation, Bytes for All and Bolo Bhi have been active for years in trying to reverse the government’s Orwellian vision of controlling all internet content, and selecting what internet users can see. Bolo Bhi recently obtained a stay order against the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) and PTA that ensures if PTA blocks a website based on a complaint, they must submit the reason for the block to the court. Indeed, the recent Islamabad High Court statement of Dec 15, 2014 and the amended court statement on Jan 20, 2015 both back Bolo Bhi’s contention that the government has no legal right to play the role of internet content regulator.
The ban was a reminder that our digital rights are not guaranteed.
Unfortunately, despite this legal assurance, the power is still not in the hands of the citizens, but remains in the firm control of PTA, which recently awarded itself the power to block access to any content on the internet that it deems fit.
No less than the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif handed this power to the PTA after disbanding the IMCEW, created during the PPP government, and which Bolo Bhi contends was also used to “suppress undesired political opinions”. Now, PTA can censor what it likes and the onus falls completely on affected citizens to try and get a site unblocked, with all the legal hassle and financial loss that entails.
The short ban on WordPress was also a demonstration of the undemocratic approach to restricting information that characterises the Pakistani government’s attitude, regardless of which political party is in power. The decision to put blocking power in the PTA’s hands was taken without involving any important stakeholders — software houses, internet service providers, digital rights campaigners, or even ordinary users of the internet who can be adversely affected by arbitrary bans.
The WordPress ban also shows that the government still hasn’t understood how important the internet is for Pakistan’s economic development and still-struggling investment scene. As Jehan Ara, President of PASHA — Pakistan Software Houses Association — said, “Technology and the internet are great equalisers for emerging countries, and create opportunities for start-ups and entrepreneurs. But our government blocks access to everything that could empower entrepreneurs.”
Supporters of a draconian authority that can block websites at will claim that there’s a need to counter anti-Pakistan propaganda on the internet, and in the case of websites that advertise for pro-militant or extremist groups that pose a real security threat to the nation, this argument makes a small amount of sense.
But the larger problem of isolating a country that desperately needs to benefit from being part of a global digital community still remains. And blocking websites in the name of security, decency or blasphemy still does not justify a widespread assault on our right to freedom of expression and information. In the name of ‘protection’, Pakistani citizens do not deserve to be collectively punished, or to be made more isolated than we already are.
Published in Dawn March 26th , 2015