Killing knowledge

Published February 5, 2023
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

IN continuation of the regressive policies and laws that the Federal Ministry of IT and Telecom, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) have been trying to impose on 230 million Pakistanis, the PTA issued a notice to Wikipedia that their services were being degraded for 48 hours, following which Wikipedia would be blocked in Pakistan. And now, it has been blocked.

Wikipedia is run by the nonprofit Wikimedia, and is the single largest repository of knowledge on a platform where information and knowledge is crowdsourced and updated in real time on any topic. Currently, there are more than 6.6m articles in the English language, and millions more in other languages. Users need to create a profile to add information and edit it, on the condition that references are cited based on facts, something the PTA can also partake in.

For the PTA to block the entire platform for Pakistani citizens based on an ego battle where one or two articles among millions is not being removed at their request is disproportionate, unconstitutional, and unfathomable in the 21st century. Such broad censorship undermines Pakistanis’ right to access information, as well as their right to education.

Educational concepts in all subjects will be inaccessible to Pakistani students; healthcare updates will be inaccessible to students and doctors; and simple access to knowledge will require Pakistani citizens to violate another absurd policy against Virtual Private Networks (VPN) that allow circumvention of censorship.

There must be no legal avenue to block entire platforms like Wikipedia.

PTA claims that a notice was sent to Wikipedia regarding “sacrilegious content”. When there is no transparency regarding the content in question, is it proportionate to block 6.6m articles of knowledge because of one article that PTA finds objectionable? How many Pakistanis know of and have read the article in question? Would anyone have known had this not been made into an issue? When the economy is in a shambles, terrorism on the rise, and political instability increasing at home; is this really the priority of the regulatory authority?

Blasphemy continues to be weaponised to no end in order to silence criticism of the expansive censorship mission the state has been on, while citizens continue to be held hostage by mobs that have been patronised over time for strategic and political goals.

It is all the more concerning that the notorious Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content Rules 2021 — known as the social media rules — under Peca, 2016, are being used to send notices to companies when they are under review by a parliamentary committee led by the federal law minister on the directions of the Islamabad High Court in April 2022. It is Pakistani civil society that submitted the petition to the court on the unconstitutionality of the rules that undermine basic freedom of speech, and the right to information of Pakistani citizens, as guaranteed by Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution.

The government is on the record for stating that the social media rules are under review, based on recommendations of human rights organisations and the country’s international human rights commitments, at Pakistan’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council recently. In light of this and the absence of a chairperson at the PTA, what legal mandate does the latter have to threaten Pakistani citizens and companies with blocking access to the world’s largest encyclopedia and actually resorting to doing so?

There has been confusion regarding the registration of Google’s office in Pakistan. It was believed to be under the social media rules when it was actually a marketing office that was regist­e­red with the Se­­cur­i­ties and Ex­­ch­a­n­­ge Com­­­m­ission of Pakistan. It wou­ld be prudent of Google to issue a clarification in this regard, so that undue government pressure is not put on other companies under the draconian rules that require local office registration with the PTA, with the aim of strengthening censorship of online content rather than encouraging economic benefits.

It is important that parliament removes Section 37 when reviewing Peca as it enables undue censorship of content and requires the formulation of rules for doing so. It is for this reason that the constitutionality of the rules keeps coming into question. There must be no legal avenue to block an entire platform such as Wikipedia or TikTok.

PTA and the IT ministry should work to improve the IT sector, and not take us back to the Stone Age, when IT sector improvement and the ease of doing business can improve foreign direct investment. Censorship, including blocking websites and social media platforms, has set Pakistan back. Is this the legacy PTA and IT ministry want to leave behind?

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2023

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