These days social media in Pakistan is abuzz about the new spectre of doom it is facing. All of us got to hear about it through an ad placed in a local newspaper from “The national ICT R&D fund” which actively invites both local and foreign software and hardware companies to help develop a url filtering system for Pakistan.
I do not think anyone has an issue with a system which could be used to block out offensive material like say “porn” or other “anti islam inflammatory” sites and the like. However some of the things the government puts on its wish list for the development of such a system for example the ability to filter out more than 15 million urls sends a bit of a chill down the proverbial spine.
Its scary because we do not have as citizens of this country any oversight on such a system. The word objectionable is used but what do they mean by “objectionable” is anyone’s guess. The past shows us that draconian measures across the world are usually put into place under the guise of “protecting national interest” and that maybe happening in this case as well? Even now the PTA orders individual isps and telcos to block websites they deem objectionable and this takes place through a manual system which has frankly become a liability on these companies. Perhaps this is the reason they are silent on the development of this grand firewall.
Obviously the silence might also be due to the 10 or 15 million dollars such a firewall would provide to its developers. Pretty lucrative a contract and I am sure some companies are already vying for it. However twin taps on the international fibers coming into Pakistan at the two peering points (TWA and PTCL) beg the question as to what the authorities want to further achieve with this new firewall as they already have surveillance capabilities which allow them to reconstruct someones surfing history and recent cyber activity when required.
Lets also not forget the youtube fiasco which led to a major outage in the whole region because of our governments rather misconstrued attempt to block it. Although experts say part of that blame was also due to companies in hong kong, we cannot rule out errors amongst 15 million blocked urls. Which could make many social networking sites and services simply disappear overnight in Pakistan.
Let me also point out here that if some of these sites are “accidentally blocked” it may lead to say Facebook switching off Pakistan and thus leaving many here to lose their precious marketing done over years on it for everything from baking goods to designer textiles. Social media is a tool many now use in Pakistan in their day to day lives and to run businesses and it would be very unfair to hinder it in this way.
So I think our elected politicians in both the PPP and the MQM whose manifesto’s include freedom of expression and spreading of communication need to take this to the the floor of the national assembly and debate it. Why do we want such a massive firewall? What will it result in for the speed of the internet here? What will the reversal process be if a site is listed by mistake? How will it be determined if a site is objectionable? Who will determine whether a site is objectionable? Will social media and networking sites also come under inspection and finally when will such a system go into effect?
If a system like this is implemented without consultation or feedback from the actual users of social media and the internet in Pakistan, it will be a chokehold on free thought and speech. A chokehold we as a country should not indulge in as the U.N has already declared access to the internet as a basic human right.
P.P.S I call upon everyone in the new media scene in Pakistan to please give your inputs and get involved in this issue as it involves the space where many of us spend most of our time in.