Pakistan's Fight for Net Freedom

It’s been an active year for digital activism on Internet freedom in Pakistan. The fact that the United Nations deemed it a basic universal human right has not stopped authorities in Pakistan from clamping down on the world wide web in many different ways and by various means. Currently, the ban on YouTube in response to the controversial film Innocence of Muslims, is entering its third month and sadly average Pakistanis believe that this is somehow affecting YouTube, LLC at an economic level and we as a nation are teaching them a lesson. This mentality is prevalent here due to lack of education and the constant brain washing by a mainstream media which indulges in conspiracy and jingoism for the sake of ratings. As a result, masses are ill-informed and believe that social media platforms and forums are on a mission to destroy Pakistan in some nefarious international plot.

In March this year the government sent out a RFP (Request For Proposal) for a url filtration system to create a firewall capable of banning up to 60 million urls. This move was stopped due to advocacy from organizations like Bolobhi, Bytes For All and Don’t block the blog. A key role was played by five of the nine international companies that are capable of providing these systems. They sided with the movement and refused to bid for the government's RFP, putting a pause in the process of creating the Great Firewall of Pakistan.

When things started to move towards a blockade again, members from the civil society and digital activists filed a constitutional petition in the High Court of Sindh, Karachi. This petition challenged the arbitrary and random acts of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in blocking, censoring and restricting access to various websites which the petition claimed violates the fundamental rights of websites/online forums owners, as well as the public at large. They were granted a stay order which stated that all banning should be done strictly in accordance with relevant provisions of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) Act of 1996 [pdf] and that website owners should be given a chance to redress as well. According to the Act, any website containing pornographic content or any website found to be of detriment to Pakistan’s national security or religion should be blocked.

Since then, there have been several instances of blocking by the government of blogs, Twitter (temporarily) and more recently YouTube, all through the PTA Act.

Social media platforms like YouTube claim they aren't really responsible for what other people upload to their site, but they do have systems that redress and remove content that is considered hate speech. However for that to take place an agreement needs to exist between the requesting authority (government) and YouTube. Pakistan has no such agreement with Google (which owns YouTube) proof of this is the fact that there is no localized version of YouTube here. Hence while Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia and many other nations were capable of blocking specific content deemed to be blasphemous, like the film Innocence of Muslims, Pakistan could not do so and thus had to resort to blocking the entire platform.

Right now the whispers speak of equipment being acquired to enable authorities to pinpoint blocking of specific areas of social media platforms; however nothing is verifiable as there is little or no interaction between the authorities and the stakeholders. A proper and regularized system of blocking content is the compromise most activists campaigning for freedom of the Internet here in Pakistan would be willing to make if they were taken on board. However till that happens or if the IT Ministry enters into mutually beneficial bilateral agreements between social media platforms and them, the fight for a free Internet in Pakistan will continue to flounder and drag along.

I honestly believe that it is very possible that around election time next year in Pakistan we will see the full effect of the firewall employed and in action. That is the time social media along with its different digital activists need to unite on the #freeinternet platform to campaign together for Internet freedom. The digital voice of 20 million Pakistanis is at stake here and we may be the only check and balance left in a system riddled with corruption and agendas.

Time line below provided courtesy Sana Saleem of Bolo bhi, displaying the crises of net freedom in Pakistan from its inception till current date.

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