THE government has moved one step closer to sealing the deal on legalising the blocking or removal of online content with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, 2015 — a step that is largely symbolic, as the blocking of the internet by the PTA has been an ongoing process, despite the regulatory body’s lack of clear rules to do so. During a recent subcommittee meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology, senators and stakeholders discussed Section 34 of the bill, which deals with new powers being granted to the PTA to regulate online content. It is unfortunate that the discussion drifted from this most critical aspect of the PECB, as mass online censorship — from banning Baloch separatist websites to blocking YouTube — has been one of the most misguided contributions of the government to internet governance.
Thousands of experts have written about the distributed nature of the internet that makes censorship a futile, costly effort. Even the PTA, in a response to the Supreme Court last year over petitions seeking a ban on objectionable websites, stated it was helpless in blocking all websites, and that such a process would lead to “deterioration in internet quality in terms of speed and availability”. When even the regulator has submitted reports stating it is playing a game of whack-a-mole when it comes to internet censorship, why is it being further empowered to continue such a pointless job and prevent free speech and access to information, contravening the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which Pakistan is a signatory?
Such an approach suggests we are actively moving towards a regressive approach to internet regulation such as that taken by China and Saudi Arabia, where citizens are left coming up with new and inventive means to bypass state censorship. Both China and Saudi Arabia have taken technological and institutional steps to censor the internet that go beyond law and now extend to societal norms, business practices and other areas. Similarly in Pakistan, we may see censorship extend beyond the government’s desire to control information to negatively impact society — eg increased instances of online blasphemy accusations used — as seen in the real world — not only to censor information on the internet, but also to target minority groups and ordinary citizens. This is not a hypothetical situation but one grounded in the fact that multiple cases of blasphemy charges based on internet content have already occurred in the last two years. The PECB has no answer to the impact of the internet censorship it will bring into law. It is unfortunate that a lack of internet penetration and thereby an understanding of the internet among the general population and leaders leave the country vulnerable to new policies that once passed will be hard to reverse and damaging to the very people who approved them.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2016