Welcome to 1984
By Irfan Husain
OVER the years, despite repeated bouts of military dictatorship, Pakistan has remained a relatively open society. Even with spooks running around unchecked, people have expressed themselves pretty openly, both privately and publicly.
In large measure, this has been due to the incompetence of our bureaucracy. Few cops and spies are very enthusiastic about surveillance duties. More often than not, they file their poorly written reports that go unread, and pile up in some dusty government archives, never to see the light of day.
But all this is about to change. According to an international tender floated by this government, it is aiming to acquire technology that will enable it not just to block websites at will, but to read our emails and monitor all Internet traffic.
As we know, computers don’t get tired, or wander off for a cup of tea. George Orwell wrote about a technological dystopia in his futuristic novel 1984 where citizens were constantly watched. Pakistan seems about to leapfrog into the world of Big Brother while still at a pre-industrial stage.
This ham-handed attempt at censoring and controlling the Internet has drawn derision from all those concerned about the free flow of information. While this initiative professes to protect us from pornographic and blasphemous content, the reality is that it seeks to surreptitiously invade our privacy.
Over the last 15 years or so, we have become increasingly dependent on the Internet for communications, information and entertainment. Twitter and Facebook are used by millions of young Pakistanis to keep in touch with family and friends, and have opened up a whole new world. This world is about to change as petty officials can cut users off, or read private messages, at will.
Ironically, this crude attempt to control and censor the Internet is being financed by the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Fund. This fund is fed by a percentage taken from the revenues of telecom firms, and was intended to finance scholarships in information technology, as well as research and development. It was never meant to pay foreign companies to help the government in censoring the content on our screens.
A year or so ago, there was a gauche attempt to curb emails and text messages that ridiculed the government and its leaders.
Articles denouncing the initiative appeared around the world. Hopefully, this effort will meet the same fate. And if Sana Saleem’s campaign succeeds, it well might. This brave young blogger, and founder of ‘Bolo Bhi’ [Speak Up], has been tireless in her attempt to block the government’s crude censorship policy. [Readers can follow her campaign at http://www.bolobhi.org.]
She has been widely quoted in the international media, and has approached Western firms manufacturing equipment suitable for the government’s requirements to boycott the $50m tender. Many of them have agreed not to bid. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based organisation, has written to the prime minister, urging him to withdraw this decision.
The argument that by blocking access to many websites, the government will shield us from ‘indecent’ content, does not hold up to scrutiny. The reality is that there are millions of sites out there. Short of completely cutting Pakistan off from the wired world, it is not possible to insulate us from the free-wheeling anarchy of the Internet.
Those who created the system that now connects hundreds of millions across the globe always intended it to be a free and open space. This freedom gives it the energy that has placed it at the centre of communications and instant information. If the government blocks one site, a dozen or more pop up. And those who know how can easily get around crude artificial barriers erected by insecure states.
This government’s model is the Great Firewall of China that routinely blocks thousands of websites the government deems unsuitable, or will damage the Communist Party’s reputation. But China is a dictatorship, while we claim to be a democracy. In a free society, citizens have the right to privacy as well as access to uncensored information.
True, these rights are not absolute, and in certain security-related cases the state has the authority to place individuals under electronic surveillance. But this intrusion is seldom unchecked and in democracies it normally requires judicial approval. For an elected Pakistani government to acquire these totalitarian tools is inexplicable.
However, this latest attempt at controlling information is in line with what we have seen recently. When the BBC aired ‘Secret Pakistan’, a two-part documentary that purported to establish the close links between the ISI and the Taliban, the country’s cable service providers blocked the British channel. Thus, many Pakistanis no longer have access to this widely respected news service. To imagine that Pakistan’s cable operators were so outraged by the documentary that they independently decided to cut off the BBC is to miss what our intelligence agencies have been up to for years. And there are no prizes for guessing which agency is behind the BBC ban.
Then there was the court-directed blocking of Facebook that cut millions of Pakistanis off from their favourite social networking site. Protests in the media led to its withdrawal. Gen Musharraf, too, attempted to gag the media, but even shooting the messenger could not save him at the end.
Insecure leaders and governments are the ones that try the hardest to censor news and keep an eye on their citizens. On the pretext of safeguarding public morality, they seek to control the free flow of information.
Despite our loud and raucous claims to piety, a survey found that the highest number of hits at pornographic websites originated from Pakistan. Erecting a firewall is unlikely to change this reality in a society where hypocrisy is a way of life.
It is true that many websites carry objectionable material. While researching my book, I trawled through a large number of jihadi websites that were shocking in their calls to violence. And yet I would not advocate that they be blocked or taken down.
After all, nobody forced me to access them.
And ultimately, this is what free choice is about: the ability to decide what to read or watch is central to any democracy. As long as I am not hurting anybody, I should be at liberty to log on to any site I wish to without some petty official deciding it isn’t
good for me. So would the government please save this $50 million, and spend it on something more worthwhile?
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.