Public Perception of Internet Freedom and Censorship in Pakistan

Arzak Khan, Director and Co-Founder of Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP), discusses his research study which aims to investigate the links between internet usage and public perception towards internet censorship and policymaking in Pakistan.

The aim of this research study is to investigate the links between internet usage and public perception towards internet censorship and policymaking in Pakistan. Defending the right to freedom of expression has been a long standing tradition in many developed countries, but that has not always been the case in many developing countries where government restrictions on all traditional media are often accepted as a part of life. However, with many Pakistanis getting access to the internet for the first time and becoming connected to a global community, things may be beginning to change. Evidence from the Global South suggests that as a country’s population becomes increasingly connected to the Web, there is growing support for ending government controls and censorship. It is the aim of this project to thoroughly investigate these assumptions and uncover what demand exists for internet freedom and other internet policies.

The increasing use of the internet for democratic movements has resulted in governments around the world cracking down on the web in the form of blanket censorship. Most governments in developing countries such as Pakistan want to regulate the Internet in the way television is regulated. This includes having tighter control mechanisms in the guise of policies protecting national security, religion and society. Before the “Arab Spring,” the Pakistani government was planning on promoting the internet for socio-economic development. However, these policies have not moved forward substantially and broadband diffusion is not taking off as had been predicted. Furthermore, government censorship of the internet has been increasing with the blocking of websites such as YouTube, certain blogs, and Facebook pages. New filtering technologies and mechanisms are being put in place that block not just porn and blasphemous material but also political content and events. Anonymous proxy servers, android proxy applications, and VPN to circumvent web blocking are being blocked on a daily basis.  The alarming growth of web censorship in Pakistan is threatening the future of the internet and creating a digitally divided society with unequal access to knowledge and free speech.

Countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, and China want greater control over the internet. The NSA revelations of mass surveillance by Edward Snowden have furthered such governments’ desires to choke off access to the internet in the name of “information security,” a euphemism for censorship. Pakistan is already closely following the Chinese model of internet regulation with strict mechanisms being put in place in order to control access to information on the internet. Internet policymaking in Pakistan has been framed in the guise of the protection of national security, social values, and religion without considering the impact on the advancement of Pakistan’s society and economy. Similarly, in Turkey Twitter was blocked just before the local elections in the name of national security with the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan threatening to wipe out Twitter completely and admitting to ordering the platform’s blockage. This provides a prime example of how policy is frequently used to restrict internet freedom in emerging developing countries.

The internet is becoming a significant new medium for news, information, and ideas. It has become a new arena for conflict about media freedom and censorship. Understanding public attitudes and perceptions toward freedom of expression on the internet and access to free flow of information and ideas has become critical for societies to progress and develop. In addition to exploring these attitudes and perceptions, this research will also investigate the link between growing media freedom and internet censorship and public perception of getting information from both broadcast media and the internet. All these complex and interweaving issues are of particular importance to track at this time as Pakistan seeks to introduce new internet policies and regulations that could reshape the public’s experiences online for better or worse.

A recent study by the PEW Research Center on national support for internet freedom ranks Pakistan at the bottom, linking low public support for internet freedom to low internet penetration rates in the country.

Despite the low demand for censorship-free internet access, the report further suggests that youth in emerging developing countries are more opposed to Internet censorship and have a very high expectation of the internet as a way to participate  in a global emerging culture with a free and open Internet.

This project, sponsored by the Internet Policy Observatory, will further build upon the Pew research to provide an in-depth investigation into the attitudes, experiences and opinions of the Pakistani public towards Internet access, surveillance and censorship based on various demographic characteristics. The linkage between factors such as age, income, location, religious beliefs, access to internet technologies, and usage of internet in Pakistan is important to understand public attitudes towards internet freedom. The research will also try to explore in detail whether support for internet freedom will increase over the passage of time as more young people adopt the internet, or if Pakistan will continue to see low public support for democratic rights and freedoms online. .

This study will attempt to determine the following research questions by conducting a national survey in urban and rural parts of the country.:

  • How does the public in Pakistan use the internet? How is this affected by socio-economic status and geography?
  • What are the beliefs and opinions of the public about the internet in general and specific online content?
  • What are the public’s beliefs and opinions about censorship, privacy, and surveillance on the internet?
  • How knowledgeable is the public about internet policy issues on the national stage? How relevant are these issues to the everyday lives of the public?
  • Who does the public trust for regulating the internet in Pakistan? Should information online be freely available or is some form of state censorship is necessary?
  • What is public attitude towards privacy on the internet and giving away one’s personal information online?
  • What is public opinion on increased government control of the internet in Pakistan?
  • What is public opinion on limiting freedom of expression on the internet and does it have any impact on stifling growth and innovation?

 

Very little research has been carried out on understanding the attitudes and behaviors of internet users based on various demographic characteristics such as age, income, location, religious beliefs, internet access and usage, and awareness about internet freedom and censorship in Pakistan. At present there is no defining work publicly available. This research will pave the way for a greater understanding of internet attitudes and perceptions in Pakistan, and, with the data collected, hopefully enable further studies, cross country comparison. Additionally this research could possibly assist policy makers in the formulation of better policies and strategies to foster an open and free internet in Pakistan. Reports and publications derived from this research will also help the international community better understand dynamics of internet policy especially public attitude, towards internet freedom and censorship in Pakistan.

 

 

Arzak Khan is Director and Co-Founder of Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP). He studies the marketing of human rights, new media, international activism and social movements. His research focuses on understanding the role played by new information communication technologies in mediatization of society, ICT infrastructure development and regulation of the internet.

Arzak holds the esteemed Master in Communication Management (MCM) degree from University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, United Kingdom. He is also a recipient of DiploFoundation Policy Research Fellowship in internet governance and ICT policy capacity building program. Arzak was awarded Internews Media Policy fellowship to attend Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute at University of Oxford in 2012. Arzak also holds a Master in Computer Science from University of Balochistan, Pakistan. He has published and presented his research at national and international forums on the issues of broadband development, mediatization of society, social activism, internet freedom, media regulation and next generation infrastructure advancement in the South. He is the co-author of pioneer Freedom House report on “Freedom on the Internet in Pakistan” published in 2011.

 

 

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