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Moral Policing of internet in Pakistan

Oppression by design

Networks are oppressive by design.  They allow people to connect, but only if they follow the protocols. Roads are designed to make you go in specific directions, romantic relationships follow courtship rituals, and you cannot add someone as an enemy on Facebook.
Because of values embedded in these protocols, they empower certain people more than others. Large roads make adjacent plots more valuable (and corner plots are the most expensive). Fat, lonely and socially awkward people are marginalized in rituals of romance. And if you have two wives in Pakistan, you can link only one of them with your Facebook profile.
But there is more to networks than just the infrastructure. Networks have culture. Shared use of infrastructure results in shared experiences and shared meanings. The network becomes a medium of expression, and people use loopholes in the infrastructure to express themselves in new ways. People cut holes in dividers on roads and use sidewalks for socialization, have sex with people they are not dating or married to, and use punctuation marks to mimic facial expressions. Defiance is always possible.

Pakistan hacking Pakistan:

Internet censorship in Pakistan is not carried out as a law enforcement operation to regulate the use of infrastructure, but as a moral responsibility to regulate culture. That is why the government finds no irony in attacking its own infrastructure.
For a nationwide censorship system to work, the entire internet traffic must pass through a funnel. Such bottlenecks make the system slower and more prone to failure. Urban security checkpoints are an example of such bottlenecks. Terrorists can kill a very large number of civilians if they attack an urban security checkpoint that slows down traffic. The same way, hackers can easily break down the internet system if they attack the Pakistan Internet Exchange.
Any such breakdown would hurt individuals and businesses in Pakistan whose livelihoods and welfare depend on the Internet. And it would also make their personal and private data vulnerable. Why would a government do that to its citizens?

Ten questions:

Why would a government that has little control over a large part of its geographical area spend millions of dollars to regulate the tribal area of the world wide web?
Is pornography such a major problem that we are ready to jeopardize our safety and security only to make access to pornography slightly harder?
Even if a large number of people watch pornographic or blasphemous material on the internet, is it fair to use those statistics to justify taking away the fundamental right of free speech from each and every one of them, and put their livelihoods and privacy at risk?
Who will define pornography or blasphemy? Should bureaucrats be allowed to assume definitions and then charge individuals or websites and take action against them without a formal trial?
How would any legal definition or pornography and blasphemy be implemented on a keyword or URL filtering level? Who would ensure that human rights blogs, political and religious websites, or medical websites that mention body parts will not be banned like in the past?
What if governments use this system to harass, pressure or blackmail citizens, or target political and business organizations?
What if a hacker or a terrorist group gets access to the system to do the same?
Would an individual or business be able to challenge unwarranted action against them, and will the government compensate for the damages it causes?
What if the Pakistan Internet Exchange gets hacked? Would the government compensate individuals and businesses for the damages?
And most importantly, why were these simple questions not addressed before the system was put in place?

The eleventh question:

While such complete control allows the government to filter content, it also allows the government to eavesdrop on its citizens. That is perhaps the answer to the tenth question.
This eavesdropping may begin in the name of security, but will ultimately lead to moral policing. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has been reported to have produced private mobile phone conversations of a sexual nature in court to justify its ban on packages that offer cheaper calls at night.
Opinion makers in Pakistan have recently started making a case for limited internet censorship in the country. They argue that communication on the internet must follow the law of the land.

But is this really about law-enforcement?

If terrorist groups want to attack our infrastructure, why is the government responding by making it easier for them? If terrorist groups do not believe in the constitution and want to abolish the fundamental democratic rights of the people of Pakistan, why is the government responding by abolishing the fundamental democratic rights of the people of Pakistan?

Rs2.7bn on taping social media in Pak

PPP Govt (2008-13) banned Facebook (twice), Twitter (twice), YouTube (twice), Blogspot and a number of websites and Facebook pages criticizing the government policies and practices

Last July a Kuwaiti court sentenced teacher, Sara al-Drees, to a 20-month jail term for calling the Kuwaiti emir “a great placid actor before the cameras, and tyrant behind the scenes” in a tweet sent from her cell phone.

Earlier in June the Saudi court sent seven critics of the government to prison for “inciting protests, illegal gatherings and breaking allegiance with the King” on Facebook. Similar actions were taken against individuals involved in political dissent on the internet and social media in Oman, Bahrain and the UAE. Qatar is presently chalking out its own cybercrime bill and despite the lack of domestic unrest and dissent in the oil-rich monarchy, Net freedom activists nervously await a draft law, hoping that Qatar doesn’t take the same line as the rest of the Gulf States.
In comparison we in Pakistan have not made it to the Net Freedom Hall of Shame. But it isn’t all blue skies and sunshine in the ‘Land of the Pure’ [Pakistan’s literal meaning] either.

In March 2006, the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the government to continually monitor the Internet for blasphemous content and to block access to such content. In the guise of filtering blasphemous content and pornography, the state authorities in Pakistan have actively blocked access to websites and Facebook pages that carry alternative political and social discourse, Ahmedi religious content and the demands of Baloch secessionist movements. The website of the popular culture magazine The Rolling Stone was blocked by the previous regime for criticizing Pakistan’s military expenditure. Clearly, the Supreme Court authorized moral purge of the Internet is no longer restricted to websites hosting content offensive to the religious sensibilities of the Muslim majority of the country.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Net freedom activists in the country have so far failed to fully grasp the extent of these measures. In February 2012 the National ICT R&D Fund put out a call for companies interested in “the development, deployment and operation of a national level URL Filtering and Blocking System”.
Ostensibly this technology is being sought to block blasphemous and pornographic content on the Internet. However, the absence of clear legal guidelines for the application of such a powerful tool, capable of enhancing the ability of the state to stifle alternative discourse and dissent on the Internet, triggered protests by human rights activists and civil society on social media and in Islamabad. Faced with overwhelmingly unpopular public opinion the idea was officially scrapped. Unlike the Gulf States, the democratic values Pakistan so desperately tries to wrap itself in, forced the state to bend to public opinion.

However six months later the same public opinion changed things completely. A trailer for an anti-Islam video emerging from the USA on the popular video-sharing website YouTube sparked protest and outrage among Muslim communities around the world. In Pakistan, widespread public anger forced the government to ban access to the entire website until the offensive video was taken down. The legal and political topsy - turvy that followed is well documented and YouTube remains blocked to this day.

The ban on YouTube and the failure to deal with the circumstances around it symbolize the previous regime’s failure to uphold the values of freedom of expression and privacy of an individual guaranteed in the constitution. During its five years in power, the PPP government (2008-13) banned Facebook, Twitter and YouTube twice as well as BlogSpot and a number of other websites and Facebook pages that criticized government policies and practices. No one can be blamed for hoping that the country had turned a corner in its approach to net freedom and that the worst was over with the PPP’s term in office.
When PML-N took office after the general elections in May this year, expectations were mixed. For many, the editorial on the party’s official website criticizing the continuation of a YouTube ban was seen as a sign of better times. Others expected the worst after the party’s last stint in office where instances of harassment of journalists and media organizations were the norm.

The first signs of trouble became evident when the federal cabinet was announced and rookie lawyer and politician, Anusha Rehman, was handed the Minister of State for IT position. The appointment of a lawyer to this position was a telling statement of the party’s intent. This signaled the clear intention to continue the previous government’s strategy of locating legal loopholes in order to morally shepherd the 25 million active Internet users and to sway public opinion regarding reinstatement of scrapped Internet filtering projects.

In a statement to the press Ms Rehman promised to purge the Internet of all moral and religious content considered to be offensive, using state-of-the-art filtering technology procured at the cost of Rs. 2.7 billion. This system is already being tested by the state and will soon ensure the resumption of access to YouTube.

Basically, the PML-N government has successfully reintroduced Internet filtering and censorship technology similar to that in repressive regimes around the world. A unique combination of public sentiment and a distinct lack of legal clarity on the part of the superior courts on the issue are helping this democratically elected government to equip itself with tools designed to curb individual rights of freedom of expression and access provided by the constitution.
So yes, compared to our friends in the Middle East things may not yet be so bad for individuals voicing their opinions in the digital space, but dark clouds are gathering over the Internet in Pakistan and its potential as a space for open and inclusive discourse. We may soon get YouTube back, but may lose far more of the Internet and our individual freedoms as a price.