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Internet barriers

It comes as no surprise that Pakistan has been ranked among the 10 worst countries for internet freedom on Freedom House’s Free­dom on Net Report 2016. This was inevitable after the passage in August of the Preven­tion of Electronic Crimes Act, the controversial cybercrime law that legitimises cen­­­­­­­sor­­­­­ship and unfettered state surveillance.

Pakistan scored 69 out of 100 overall (100 being the worst score), with the poorest percentage score (31/40) in the ‘violations of human rights’ category. The ranking is symptomatic of a broader trend of growing intolerance for free speech, dissent and dialogue — one that is likely to worsen over the coming years.

A key contributor to Pakistan’s poor ranking is the fact that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) can block and filter any content it deems inappropriate. Content can be banned on the basis that it is blasphemous, obscene, or goes against the national interests of Pakistan.

Digital rights warriors are fighting an uphill battle. But, as the Freedom House report points out, these issues are subjective and can be used as justification for the “politically motivated censorship of dissenting voices”, particularly as the process for blocking content remains opaque, with no requirements on the PTA to explain why certain content is blocked, and no means available to challenge the regulator’s decision.

Interestingly, Pakistan’s score held steady from the previous year as bad legislation was offset by the unblocking of YouTube in January, and successful negotiations between the government and Blackberry, which enabled the latter to continue to provide encrypted services despite an earlier instruction that the company provide officials with access to encrypted messages sent through its servers.

Pakistan also has a good track record of permitting access to independent media, international news organisations, diverse websites of political and civil society groups, and all social networking, blogging and VoIP applications. But this very freedom and diversity is increasingly precarious.

The challenge is the state’s mentality, according to which citizens are a threat, diverse voices are a threat, dialogue is a threat. We can see this mentality clearly expressed in Pakistan’s approach to internet governance, which privileges censorship and surveillance, but does little to protect users’ digital rights, whether by clamping down on hate speech or online harassment or guaranteeing privacy.

The problem extends well beyond the internet: in recent weeks we have seen slur campaigns against scholars, questions raised about the nature of debate at academic conferences, and even the dismissal of an information minister for failing to prevent this paper from publishing a story (as if that were the role of information ministers, to censor journalistic content).

The crackdown on dissenting voices comes at a time when Pakistan has not had the chance to internalise the values of free speech and open expression. The trauma of the past decade — during which brutal do­­mestic terrorism and regional conflicts have been framed in terms of the ‘clash of civilisations’ and conspiracy theories — has left most people more invested in defending religion and the national interest rather than human rights. The state has effectively presented itself as a champion against treason, blasphemy and obscenity, while civil society has failed to make the argument that free speech and rights protections can help strengthen a country, not undermine or shame it.

Luckily, Pakistan’s civil society is resi­lient, increasingly effective and world class. On the digital rights front, we boast champions who are fighting to ensure that the state’s authoritarian tendencies do not trump the potential of increased internet penetration.

Bolo Bhi, a non-profit that led the campaign against the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, in August won the Index on Censorship Freedom of Ex­­pression award for campaigning; Nighat Dad, the founder of the Digital Rights Founda­tion, which campaigns against on­­line surveillance and teaches women how to counter online harassment, was awarded the Dutch government’s Human Rights Tulip Award earlier this month.

But these champions are fighting uphill battles. The rise of demagogues from the US to the Philippines means that there are fewer voices left with the credibility to challenge the human rights record of our government. Some of Pakistan’s closest allies have even worse net freedom records (China ranked worst with a score of 88/100).

The Trumps and Erdogans of the world have expressed open support for intense surveillance; according to the Freedom House report, 14 out of 65 countries have passed new laws to increase surveillance since June 2014, and authorities in 40 out of 65 countries imprisoned people for sharing information about politics, religion and society online.

We cannot leave the work of protecting free speech to a few valiant digital rights defenders. The onus is on all of us to convince the state that its critics are not its enemies, they are patriots with a deep investment in seeing their country at its best.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


Huma Yusuf, "Internet barriers," Dawn. 2016-11-21.
Keywords: Social science , Internet freedom , Cyber crimes , Cybercrime law , Human rights , Telecommunication authority , Digital rights , International news , Internet governance , Academic conferences , Do­­mestic terrorism , Electronic Crimes Act , United State , Philippine , China , Pakistan