Pakistan faces multiple hurdles when it comes to the development of a comprehensive, consistent, and coherent internet policy. The following post by Yelmaz Mujtaba, Sana Saleem, and Farieha Aziz will briefly look through how ad hoc censorship policies and a lack of willpower to develop infrastructure have hampered the development of Pakistan’s internet. The post will then suggest possible solutions for addressing these issues.
Online Censorship: Sacrificing the Long Term
Within Pakistan, the policy structure governing internet censorship can best be described as ad hoc, vague, and without any discernible boundaries to what may or may not be considered censorable. In the past decade, internet users in Pakistan have experienced sporadic blocking of websites under the guise of national security, morality and religion. The fact that justifications for censorship usually revolve around national security and religious sentiments makes engagement on policy matters with law-makers extremely difficult. Two prominent censorship events in Pakistan, the Facebook ban in May 2010 due to “draw Muhammad day,” and the YouTube ban in September 2012 that resulted from the outcry over the contentious video, “Innocence of Muslims,” perfectly illustrate the lack of debate before acting to censor content. Both bans were implemented with no discussion, and, while the ban on Facebook was eventually overturned, the ban on YouTube continues and just reached its two year anniversary. Additionally, politicians and decision makers have largely ignored the fact that both Facebook and YouTube provide significant platforms for learning, sharing, and the development of ideas when making censorship decisions. Thus far, censorship practices have proven to be purely reactionary, with decision makers choosing to appear authoritative and decisive with regard to emotional, religious issues, rather than considering the long term effects of these bans on economic and social development. The lack of definition or actual understanding of the term “objectionable content,” therefore causes significant issues, especially when content that aims to enhance understanding and learning, which we will get into later, becomes “collateral damage” within decision-making regarding the vague notion of objectionable material.
Due to a lack of actual clarity over the policy, and an unwillingness from law-makers to engage in debate, many websites and/or blogs belonging to individuals or groups who are critical of the government or who highlight failures of the government have seen their content arbitrarily censored. WordPress, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and YouTube have all been restricted by the government at some point (with, as mentioned above, YouTube continuting to be blocked since 2012). On each occasion, the policy decisions and the justifications given for these blocks have varied, shaped by the specific social and political events of the moment. Individual Facebook pages have regularly been blocked in Pakistan, and the decisions to block appear to be shaped on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis rather than through a clear decision making process. Most recently, the music band Laal had its Facebook page blocked, with the incident inviting much ridicule for the authorities once it was made clear to the public that Laal’s page had been used to share harmless updates about upcoming events. No rationale for the ban was provided by either the Pakistani government or the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority., Under the current policy regime, transparency is non-existent and no rationale is required from the authorities regarding such bans. Acts such as these actively hamper the development of entrepreneurial spirit, artistic endeavor and free expression.
YouTube is the largest platform of its sort with a global user-base that provides young entrepreneurs and artists with a forum to share their videos (and accompanying ideas, discoveries, creations) with a huge audience. By blocking of YouTube, access to the world’s largest singular resource of educational material has been denied to Pakistani citizens. Primary school and university students, teachers, and many other people turn to YouTube to increase their knowledge in various fields and areas of professional and scholarly expertise. The lack of a clear policy, objectives, and understanding of Pakistan’s censorship policies has, in that regard, perhaps acted to hamper development of knowledge in such scenarios. For example, the Virtual University of Pakistan primarily used YouTube as a means to provide subscribers with lectures in multiple fields of education. Since the ban they have been forced to use built in proxies with their embedded videos in order to play their videos. This makes the content slow to load and compromises the online security of the user.
It appears that the government does not have a coherent long term policy with methods for prioritizing or making clear the criteria for censored content. Such an approach may in the long term pose tangible harms to growth and it is therefore imperative that debate take place on the matter to increase understanding and awareness of the processes and rationales used in censorship decision-making.
Pakistan’s internet policy problems do not begin or end with blocking of content. Only about sixteen percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million people has internet access, due to various infrastructural constraints and the degree of bureaucracy present in the IT sector. A recent survey by Bolo Bhi found the lack of reliable internet service to be the primary cause for such a small percentage of the population getting online. The effort to create a Pakistani digital service on par with other developing nations is crippled by a lack of willingness to promote and invest in connectivity. In most cases, investments and willingness to promote connectivity is entirely non-existent.
A recent example of poor policy execution is the aftermath of the sale of 3G and 4G in Pakistan. For a multitude of reasons, the government delayed the sale of 3G and 4G licenses for years. Finally in early 2014, a public auction was held and the highest bidding companies were granted licenses. With a majority of the national population of the country scattered among rural regions where wired connectivity infrastructure simply does not exist, the launch of 3G and 4G was heralded as an opportunity to expand internet coverage to rural areas. Elsewhere, rural connectivity has seen progress in education as well as important economic sectors such as agriculture. It was thought that Pakistan now had an opportunity to catch up to other developing nations. However, the 3G and 4G licenses granted did not require corporations to significantly expand their connectivity network for a decade — leaving rural Pakistan potentially without access for many years to come. In urban areas, many users experience slow broadband speeds (Pakistan ranks 168th in the world out of 192 in terms of internet speed) because of aged and unmaintained copper wiring as opposed to fiber-optical cable that supports higher internet speeds. Even if individuals do have the proper infrastructure for internet connectivity present, they are hampered by high prices for higher speeds (the average subscription cost can go up to 24% of the national gross domestic product per capita) due to a lack of competition with the country’s largest internet service provider the PTCL (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority). The PTCL enjoys a monopoly over higher speeds as it controls three of the four internet connectivity portals within Pakistan. All other ISPs must buy bandwidth from PTCL itself.
It is important to understand that the internet, and access to it, aids long term and sustainable development. Other countries embrace the digital age and draw benefits from creating policies that strengthen the right to access. If Pakistan too is to draw similar benefits, policy must look further than simply attempting to maintain the status quo. It must actively work towards strengthening the right to access, and ensuring a larger slice of the population can draw maximum benefit from the internet. In order to do this, not only must policy on blocking websites be reviewed. Infrastructure development and the corporate culture of ISPs must also be subject to revision and change. Independent policy research needs to be undertaken to analyze the areas where Pakistani internet policy has acted counter to development, progress, and the protection of rights such as free speech. In order to extract maximum benefit from the internet and the connectivity it offers, it is essential to engage all stakeholders ranging from the ordinary man to ISPs and the government in a debate that helps enhance understanding and helps to build a more cooperative and mutually beneficial internet environment within Pakistan.