THE recent inadvertent blocking of certain websites such as Bloomberg and BuzzFeed in Pakistan makes for a concise study in the sinister nature of systems of arbitrary power — as well as their silliness. The mechanisms for content regulation are straightforward enough: government and state institutions (often the interior ministry) send directives to the PTA (solely vested with the power to regulate content under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act) listing websites purportedly hosting illegal content; the authority, in turn, proceeds to direct internet service providers to block these websites. As reported in this paper on Monday, however, when contacted for more information on why these recent website restrictions (corroborated by multiple sources, including a copy of the directive) were imposed in Pakistan, the PTA initially denied blocking these particular sites, yet later issued fresh orders directing ISPs to unblock them.

Though the mistake originated from another department, what this absurdity of errors illustrates is how the PTA has no internal checks and balances with which to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate requests, choosing instead to implement them en masse. Nor does it publicly disclose what web content has been restricted in Pakistan, or why — making it that much harder for the public to scrutinise and challenge the legitimacy of their grounds. Adding to bureaucratic abstruseness is one of several deliberate flaws in Peca’s design: the use of vague and highly subjective terminology such as ‘objectionable content’. This has created a climate in recent years in which internet freedom has consistently deteriorated, with all sorts of content — including political, even satirical — having been censored. Fundamental rights to freedom of speech and to a free press do come with the caveat of ‘reasonable restrictions’, and most of our right to information laws are subject to a prohibitively long exemption list. However, it would be a subversion of the spirit of the Constitution to presume that citizens are not entitled to an open debate on where the line of ‘reasonability’ ends, and a draconian censorship dragnet begins.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2019

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