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internet policing

Surf war

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Pakistanis resent the YouTube ban imposed by their government, but are too afraid of the blasphemy laws to protest. A human rights group has taken the legal route, arguing that the ban infringes on the fundamental rights of citizens.

While Pakistan may not rank high in global indexes of human rights and online freedom, a legal battle being fought in the Lahore high court could well provide a template for all those taking on jittery governments that are uncomfortable with the internet's power to mobilise ordinary citizens.

Popularly known as The YouTube Case in Pakistan, it challenges a government ban on the video-sharing service that was imposed after an inflammatory film, Innocence of Muslims, was uploaded to YouTube last year and ended up sparking global outrage. And in a move sure to gladden liberal hearts, the petition also challenges the state's right to ban websites.

One estimate suggests that at least 1.70 lakh sites and URLs have been blocked without giving any justification. At the heart of this debate is a question being asked all over the world, especially after the Snowden episode - is the internet good or bad? Those fighting to un-ban YouTube in Pakistan believe its inherent goodness completely overshadows the dark side. The case there has been filed by a human rights organisation, Bytes for All (B4A), against the ministry of interior and the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority. In fact, B4A is one of the few voices standing up for freedom of expression across the Wagah border. In India, the online community would have flooded the social media space with rage and resentment had the government blocked YouTube. In Pakistan, things are a little more complicated. Blasphemy laws can be invoked by both the government and touchy Islamist organisations. You get no stories of people's anger if you google 'anger in pakistan over youtube ban'.

Which is also why the petition argues that the arbitrary censorship deprives Pakistanis of their constitutional rights to life, freedom of expression, freedom of association, free exercise of religion and to privacy which is derived from the "penumbra of these constitutional freedoms and rights".

"No section of society has been spared the infringement by a small cabal of civil servants hell bent on destroying Pakistan's future by these actions which are neither reasoned nor defensible," B4A has told the court. Take the dissemination of knowledge. "... many students who are enrolled with online or open universities have faced immense difficulty in accessing and obtaining the requisite online videos and material containing lectures and coursework, " the petition reads. "It is submitted that there is no way for a physicist in Pakistan to keep updated on the rapid progress at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN or new discoveries at Trieste or Fermilab."

While YouTube was blocked over the blasphemous content of one film, the petitioners fight for the right of the believers to use the same service. "... by depriving Pakistani citizens and people residing in Pakistan of the use of YouTube, the Respondents have deprived millions of Muslims in Pakistan access to religious videos, lectures and exchanges, Quranic recitation, Manazaras, Dars, Majalis, Zikr, Naatia Mushairas etc in addition to the ability to counteract and respond to materials which are deemed anti-Islamic," the petitioners say. "Similarly, it has deprived Pakistanis of other faiths similar access to their religious programming."

"The government hasn't even bothered to declare a list of banned sites," says country director of B4A, Shahzad Ahmad. "We believe religion and national security are just veils. The real reason behind the banning is almost always political." Advocate Yasser Latif Hamdani, who represent B4A, adds: "There has to be a law enacted by the legislature for the government to justify such banning. In Pakistan, the executive bans without law."

Besides, other countries, Muslim and non-Muslim, including Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, India and Maldives, have banned the specific URLs to the objectionable film. Only Pakistan persists with a blanket ban on YouTube. "You have the technology to ban specific URLs. Why do you have to ban the whole of YouTube?"

The petition asks for a list of all the banned and blocked websites along with reasons for each ban, the regulation that empowers the state to carry out such bans, cogent reasons and legal justification for using kill-switches for cellular telephony. Hamdani and Ahmad also believe that the internet plays a key role in free and fair elections as it allows for "comparative and egalitarian information dissemination". They're also convinced that the blanket bans are primarily aimed at cutting emerging political parties to size.

"It is submitted that the actions of the Respondents resemble those of a monopolist closing doors to new entrants in the market, which is a short-sighted policy as it hinders genuine political progress and change in Pakistan." Interestingly, B4A had attacked intrusive snooping on citizens much before American whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the US's PRISM snooping programme. "Lower level functionaries have been equipped with technology and latest spyware to keep tabs on the people," says Hamdani. "They have the power to hack and phish into personal emails, computers, smart phones, you name it. . . effectively, they have the power to manipulate and blackmail people, creating dossiers and using sensitive information about people."

All technology experts agree that this kind of Big Brother-like monitoring will eventually end up blocking the information highway in Pakistan, Hamdani and Ahmad say. B4A has asked the court to direct the government to immediately lift all bans, stop using kill-switches for blocking cellular telephony and stop using spyware to keep tabs on individual citizens.

MINDING YOUR Ps


Pakistani human rights organisation Bytes for All has courageously challenged a ban on pornography without categorically spelling out the 'P-word' to avoid the anger of gun-totting radicals. This has been included in their YouTube case in the Lahore high court.

"... the Petitioners find the state's willingness to play the 'nanny' in terms of what materials an individual can or cannot watch is in itself a violation of the fundamental principles of human liberty, " B4A has told the court. "It is submitted that this point is made with particular reference to banning of certain websites deemed to be lewd or socially unacceptable.

"Given the conservative nature of Pakistani society, such bans can lead to frustration, violence and chaos amongst the youth of the country which now forms the majority of its citizens. The state has no business deciding moral questions for its citizens. No state, modern or ancient, secular or religious, has successfully managed to exercise such thought control on its citizens and any such attempt at moral policing has, without exception, been an exercise in futility."

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