THE spectre of an internet clampdown has once again reared its ugly head. In a recent Senate body meeting, a PTA representative stated the possibility that Twitter could be banned in Pakistan if it ignored an Islamabad High Court notice to comply with requests to block “certain offensive material” from its platform. We have been at this juncture before; then, as now, this practice is ultimately self-defeating, not least because website bans can easily be circumvented with VPNs. Trying to “teach Twitter a lesson” may or may not work, but it will certainly have an impact on its over 3m users in Pakistan — including almost all political parties and many public institutions, local businesses and start-ups, and social activists — all of whom rely heavily on the platform. This is not to say that Twitter is without fault; its policies are frequently criticised for allowing hate speech and abuse to proliferate with little checks — but no country that purports to stand for democratic values would suggest resorting to a blanket ban. Indeed, the flippant remark that Twitter is essentially expendable by virtue of its relatively small local presence betrays an inability to appropriately measure the need to tackle illegal online activity against the greater responsibility of upholding the people’s constitutional rights to information, free speech and expression. Blocking any social media platform would violate this mandate.
Amidst the furore, it is important not to ignore another disquieting suggestion made at the meeting. Stating that it cannot adequately investigate and prosecute cybercrimes under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2017, the FIA asked that it be amended so that the authority can conduct arrests, searches and seizures without court-ordered warrants — essentially a demand for carte blanche. This, too, would be an unreasonable curtailment of citizens’ rights. Peca is problematic, but not because it is too onerous for the authorities. By its design, Peca allows for mission creep, and as such implies bad faith. Much of its language is vague and subject to arbitrary interpretation. In the two years since it was passed, its rules have yet to be finalised. Transparency matters; the people have a right to know what constitutes ‘objectionable content’, not just to avoid inadvertently breaking the law but also to constructively scrutinise it and demand safeguards against state overreach. Hopefully, the PTI will keep its promises to undo this culture of secrecy, and fight for free speech, now that it is in office.
Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2018