By: Kamila Hyat
We know too little about how our government functions or what it determines for us – quite often without our knowledge or consent. One of the areas into which authorities seem to be stepping with heavier and heavier boots is access to information over the internet.
The internet has, notably over the last decade or so, revolutionised lives by bringing information streaming straight into our homes, accessible quite literally around the clock. It is now possible to know what is happening anywhere in the world even as events unfold. It is now also possible to access a large diversity of views and opinions on all kinds of topics, should we as adults opt to do so. This right of choice is available to us, while tools and basic common sense can be used to control children’s use of the net of course.
So where does the state fit in as a player? The answer should, in a democracy where the right to information is constitutionally enshrined, be quite simple: nowhere at all. Yet we find ever-increasing use of technology by our government to prevent us from knowing even what we want to know. And worse still, this task is too often gone about in an underhanded, covert fashion, seeking to keep us in the dark about even what is being done.
Some of what is happening has surfaced in courts, mainly as a result of a series of petitions placed before the Lahore High Court by the non-profit organisation Bytes for All, which campaigns for human rights and civil liberties, focusing on the IT sector.
The organisation, which has international affiliations, has challenged the state of Pakistan’s ban on YouTube. It has also challenged intelligence surveillance of cyberspace. During the hearing of these cases other – disturbing – facts have come to light. One of these is the revelation from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority that it has entered into an agreement with Facebook to block certain pages in the country.
Bytes for All has, in an open letter, written to the Washington-based Global Network Initiative – a conglomerate of human rights groups, social organisations, IT companies and others with a mission to protect internet freedom and combat growing efforts by governments to infringe on this – pointed out that Facebook is a member of the GNI and is violating its promise to users – and violating basic ethics – by collaborating with the government of Pakistan to block online content.
Bytes for All has also stated that it believes specific pages have been blocked from Facebook after this agreement. Other information made public by the group speaks of an attempt to block the Al Jazeera website after it published the Abbottabad Commission Report online. The group also says that the PTA has acquired technology from Canada to build a firewall that can keep chosen internet content out of the national cyberspace. Experts representing Bytes for All in court have also said that as far as the YouTube ban goes, it is perfectly possible to prevent access to specific videos rather than blocking the entire website and thereby disturbing so many people in different ways.
We also know that a range of websites run by Baloch nationalist groups and also some by Sindhi groups are not accessible due to PTA action. The ban on these portals has continued since the Musharraf era. This is unacceptable. We have a state moving dangerously further into the personal space of citizens, determining what they should know and what needs to be kept from them. In a country where open-thinking, free discourse and tolerance have been driven away to a great extent, this is hugely unfortunate.
Equally disturbing is the PTA’s increasing determination to find more ways to keep us in the dark. We do not know how much public money may have been spent on this exercise, though there appears to be some acceleration in activity. What makes this exercise even more absurd is the fact that it is pointless. The nature of the internet is such that it is almost impossible to draw curtains around parts of it. All the YouTube ban has essentially done is build knowledge about the dozens of proxy servers that allow the site to be accessed.
However, the real issue – beyond practicality – is that of principle. The state should simply not be interfering in the way it does. While ‘national security’ and ‘public interest’ are often cited as reasons for bans such as the one on YouTube, the fact is that the site is now available in virtually every other country in the world, including Muslim ones.
Are we then so much more sensitive than others? Do we not have the good sense to simply stay away from offensive material online if it offends us? Or has the whole matter catapulted into a wider battle between the government and Google – the owners of YouTube – as is widely believed.
Regardless of the reasons for the information blockades we face, the fact is that cyberspace – like other means of accessing information – needs to be opened up in the country. The intensified efforts to limit what we can access does not auger well for freedom at all. Our basic right to information is being infringed on and each step, however small it may seem, can so easily lead to bigger restrictions. We have already seen this happen.
The process needs to be stopped before it is too late. Vital channels of knowledge, which could help expand our limited realm of thinking, are locked away from us as part of a deliberate policy of a tunnel-visioned state that simply does not appear to think enough about what it is doing and why.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. Email: kamilahyat@ hotmail.com