Wikipedia ‘downgrade’

Published February 3, 2023

ATTEMPTS to police the internet by states, often by giving opaque justifications for the action, are never a good idea. It should be recalled that this nation was deprived of YouTube in 2012 for three years after a crude anti-Islam film was uploaded on the platform. The video-sharing giant has also been blocked briefly more recently to prevent livestreaming of PTI rallies. However, the latest global portal to fall foul of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority is Wikipedia, the free, editable online encyclopaedia often used as a starting point by millions across the world for basic information. The PTA has slowed down access to the site in Pakistan apparently because it failed to “block/remove sacrilegious content”. The regulator says Wikipedia has neither responded to its requests, nor taken down the content in question. Furthermore, it has threatened to block Wikipedia across Pakistan in case of non-compliance.

The fact is that the internet is a very difficult place to police, while questions about citizens’ rights to information also arise if states start blocking entire web portals or apps. Unfortunately, some platforms are used to upload content that breaks local laws or is designed to inflame passions. The best course may be to ignore such random provocations, instead of giving them more prominence. However, if there is serious incitement to hatred or violence, action can be taken by working with the platforms to single out such content and isolate it. Shutting down entire portals should be avoided. The state needs to reconsider its threat to ban Wikipedia. Pakistan has much bigger things on its plate to worry about than a few provocative articles on Wikipedia. Moreover, blocking sites does not do much to encourage the growth of the digital economy in the country. Fair questions also arise about the arbitrariness of such decisions. Under the guise of blocking ‘offensive’ content, the state can easily silence critics, while preventing free access to information.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2023

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