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To ban or not to ban?

December 31, 2012

ABOUT three-and-a-half months after it was imposed, the government announced that the ban on YouTube was finally to be lifted.The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, it said, had now acquired a powerful software firewall to comprehensively block blasphemous online material such as the trailer of an anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, which had led to the ban in the first place. The joy of millions of Pakistani Internet users was short-lived however, when YouTube, soon after being unblocked on Saturday, was banned again on the government’s orders.

One can concede that given the trailer’s provocative content the government had little choice but to impose a blockade in the charged atmosphere of the first few days — although many other countries blocked only the offending video and not the entire site. Pakistan did initially approach Google Inc. — the Internet giant that owns YouTube — to take down the offending trailer, and failing that, to block access to it. But it is a measure of PTA’s incompetence that it did not have an agreement with Google that would have allowed it to block the video. All this notwithstanding, the PTA cannot justify such an extended ban that deprives Pakistanis of thousands of sources of online information. Concerns for security should not outweigh people’s fundamental right to information. Also, the PTA cannot hide behind the excuse that it did not have the technical means until now to counter the situation arising from the uploading of offensive material. Telecommunications is one of the healthier sectors of the economy so finances certainly could not have been a factor. The lack of a coherent policy on the Internet or the social media seems more to blame in this case. The Internet is a vast space that can be put to positive and negative use and the authority should have been prepared to deal with such an eventuality. Moreover, the on-again, off-again ban reinforces the impression of a government out of step with the times where a mature approach is needed to navigate the minefield known as the World Wide Web.