The PPP had demonstrated that it understood little of how the internet worked when it banned YouTube to block access to one of the billions of videos on the site. That ban has now been in place for over a year and seems to have become sadly permanent. Now, the PPP provincial government in Sindh is ramping up its attack on the internet by proposing to ban communication applications like WhatsApp, Skype and Viber for a period of three months. The rationale for this ban does not stand up to scrutiny. Provincial Information Minister Sharjeel Memon claimed that criminals and terrorists use these applications to plan attacks and that the government does not have access to them. The problem with this explanation is that there are literally hundreds of such applications and terrorists can simply switch to those once the ban is in place. Will the Sindh government then decide to ban all those applications too and completely cut us off from the rest of the world? The ban found a surprising ally in the form of PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who said on Twitter – another site that may well end up on the party’s ban list the way things are going – ‘I’d rather lose an app than another life.’ The illogic of this statement needs to be unpacked. Terrorists use cell phones, cars, petrol, diesel, electricity, fertilisers for bombs and many other everyday items. Would Bilawal support banning them too? Terrorists will always misuse amenities available to us but that does not mean we snatch everyone’s freedom and liberty.
Luckily, there is a chance that the ban will end up not being enforced. The question of jurisdiction will arise and the federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has already said that he does not approve of the ban. It is entirely possible that the PTA will ignore the provincial government’s orders since it is a federal agency. We can also expect the ban to be challenged in the courts, although our judiciary has in the past shown itself as inclined when it comes to censoring the internet. Even if we end up escaping this attempt at government overreach we should never forget what the Sindh government tried to do. The only way to prevent future censorship of technology is by making clear that we will not stand for it. Governments have always used the ruse of national security to control the populace. Our fear of crime and terrorism should not blind us to the fact that this is simply another case of the government trying to regulate our private lives. They need to understand that our personal liberty is not up for negotiation.