Reflecting on findings from the newly released report “Benchmarking Demand: Pakistan and the Internet Users’ Perspective,” Jahanzaib Haque, current Chief Digital Strategist for the Dawn Media Group, comments on Internet governance in Pakistan including the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill.
Pakistan is among the five least connected countries in the world, according to a 2016 World Bank development report titled ‘Digital Dividends.’ Eighty-three per cent of the population of 200 million was found to be offline. The Freedom of the Net report released annually by Freedom House found a host of factors holding Pakistan back. The report stated that, “Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and cultural resistance have limited the proliferation of ICTs in Pakistan…most remote areas lack broadband, and a large number of users depend on slow dial-up connections or EDGE, an early mobile internet technology.”
While internet penetration is low, the introduction of 3G/4G mobile networks in 2014 has greatly impacted accessibility and speed of adoption. With 3G/4G subscribers climbing to 26.1 million as of February 2016, and total teledensity at 68.54% in the country, the internet is accessible to citizens far beyond the urban areas where it was confined up to 2014. The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) report showed that mobile phone ownership stood at 94.7% in urban areas and 83% in rural areas, promising far greater opportunities for online access. Growth in internet use is likely to be very rapid over the next few years, closing the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots that currently exists.
This surge of internet use and resulting effects of the internet on public opinion is likely to have significant impact on existing and future policies regarding cyberspace and beyond. However, research in the area of public opinion has been greatly lacking. This, combined with decades of very limited access, has allowed the state to act on behalf of the populace without a clear understanding of where public interest lies in matters related to the internet. Consequently most internet governance has been ad hoc, justified under a variety of terms from ‘national interest’ to ‘blasphemous,’ and ‘obscene.’
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the government body responsible for regulating cyberspace, operates under the controversial Telecom Reorganization Act of 1996. According to a 2012 analysis of the document, human rights organization Article 19 found that,
the act gives broad, largely unrestricted powers to the Government of Pakistan to issue policy statements and regulations in the name of protecting national security. These provisions provide few limitations on the ability of the government to issue directives and orders in violation of freedom of expression and privacy rights. In addition, the Act criminalizes vague and broad offenses, banning the dissemination of “false” or fabricated” information, as well as indecent materials and causing “mischief.”
These terms are vague and undefined, allowing for the clauses to be used to prohibit a great variety of content.
In a similar vein, the 2015 Freedom of the Net report gave Pakistan its lowest rank of “Not Free.” The report found that, “A range of overbroad provisions in the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act supports censorship for the protection of national security or religious reasons. Critics believe these issues can serve as cover for politically motivated censorship of dissenting voices. Information perceived as damaging to the image of the military or top politicians, for example, is also targeted.” 
Such findings tie into the fact that PTA employees are all appointed by the government, and the body takes directives from the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT). Within this bureaucratic structure, there is little transparency with regard to how the internet is governed and controlled.
In just the first few months of 2016, the PTA ordered the blocking of over 400,000 ‘pornographic websites.’ According to officials cited in a news report, “blocking websites at the domain level was a gigantic and costly exercise, since it would require changes in their systems and special equipment to block such a large number of websites – not to mention a significant amount of man hours needed for this purpose.” The list of sites to be blocked is not publically accessible to determine what has been categorized as ‘pornographic,’ continuing a trend of secrecy that has been in place since the late 90s.
In the last two decades, the state has, on an ad-hoc basis, blocked all or parts of Facebook, YouTube, Blogspot, and Twitter for hosting blasphemous or ‘anti-state’ content, often under direct order from the Supreme Court. Thousands of ‘blasphemous,’ ‘pornographic,’ ‘anti-Islam,’ and ‘anti-state’ sites have been blocked over this time period, intermittently being unblocked, then blocked again.
A 2013 investigation by Citizen Lab uncovered that Netsweeper filtering products had been installed on Pakistani networks. The report noted that the controversial filtering tools were being used, “for the purposes of political and social filtering, including websites relating to human rights, sensitive religious topics, and independent media.” It added that local ISPs were also using other methods such as DNS tampering to block content. This discovery came as no surprise however, as the MoIT had already publicly called for proposals in 2012 for a national level URL filtering system – an indicator of the state’s priorities.
It is unclear where the public, in particular Internet users, stands on this issue of online censorship however. Existing surveys, which are limited, reveal varied findings ranging from the conclusion that most Pakistanis generally agree with the decisions of the state, to the conclusion that there is popular discontent with the state’s policies and actions. Other surveys show that the population is unaware of the current state of affairs.
A 2015 Pew Global Attitudes survey on freedom on the Internet in emerging and developing nations, conducted in Spring 2015, showed that, out of the 38 countries surveyed, Pakistan had one of the lowest levels of public support (25% of population) when asked whether it was very important that people have access to the internet without government censorship. The report also noted that the support for Internet freedom in Pakistan is comparatively lower than otherwise should be predicted when comparing the ratio between Internet penetration and public support for Internet freedom across the 38 countries surveyed. Perhaps loudest in their silence, the report also noted that a large percentage of Pakistani respondents (30%) offer no opinion on this question.
In contrast, the Center for Global Communication Studies’ (CGCS) Pakistan survey shows a wider variation in responses to questions of online censorship among the 3,720 Pakistani Internet users surveyed for this report.
With regards to online censorship, a significant majority of Internet users (58%) agreed that “Information should be freely distributed with no censorship.” This trend is also seen when respondents were asked what the government’s motivation for blocking content was: eighty percent of respondents believed the primary motivation was either to ‘protect themselves from criticism’ (45%) or ‘to curtail freedom of expression’ (35%).
For a country where committing blasphemy is a constitutional offense carrying the death penalty, a surprisingly high 30% of respondents disagreed with the idea that the “Internet should be censored due to having blasphemous content,” although the majority (44%) neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement. This indicates at least some disagreement with the government’s decades-long push to block content deemed blasphemous online.
However, in follow-up questions, respondents were in favor of some censorship, with very high agreement on the blocking of ‘radical political ideas’ (92% agreed), ‘pornographic websites’ (80% agreed) and ‘hate speech and disharmony’ (79% agreed) – all responses in line with the direction of state policies to date.
In an environment where conflicting views persist, and new segments of the population adopt the Internet, the state has pushed forward a cybercrime bill draft, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB), that will have a long term impact on Internet governance if passed into law. Acts deemed criminal under the bill are vaguely worded and carry harsh penalties, such as three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to PKR 0.5 million for creating a website for ‘negative purposes.’ Terms such as ‘morality’ and ‘decency’ are not defined.
Critics of the bill believe the state is looking to gain a legal stamp of approval for its existing acts of online censorship and surveillance. Legal experts and members of the IT industry also suggest there is a simple lack of awareness of the impact of bringing such a bill into law. In either case, lawmakers operate under assumptions about public opinion on the matter.
Over the years, the debate on issues related to the Internet has been largely ignored by mainstream media. Exceptions include cases of censorship that involved blasphemy (e.g. Facebook ban, YouTube ban), where the focus was on religion, street protests, and ensuing violence. On a few occasions, there has also been some coverage of censorship of ‘pornographic content,’ but again, only in reaction to Supreme Court orders to block websites. In both cases, the media’s portrayal, the court verdicts, and the vocal/violent religious-political forces that carry out protests create a perception that suggests a majority of the public would approve of strict laws to control the Internet. Why define morality in a cybercrime bill when given a free hand by an assumedly approving public?
In a spring 2014 Pew Global Attitudes survey of 32 countries, only 20% of Pakistanis felt that the internet had a good influence when responding to the question, “Has the increasing use of the internet had a good influence, a bad influence, or no influence at all on morality?” A further 31% felt it had a bad influence, 5% felt it had no influence, and 43% indicated they did not know/refused to answer the question. The survey further asked respondents about the Internet’s influence on politics, economy, education and personal relationships. In the politics and personal relationships categories, Pakistan ranked lowest among countries surveyed in seeing the internet as a good influence. With regard to the economy, Pakistan was also among the bottom three countries.
Once again, CGCS’s Pakistan survey shows a different picture of what Internet users in Pakistan think. On the issue of morality, 82% of respondents disagreed with the statement, “There is too much immoral material on the Internet.” This response ties directly into the high levels of trust respondents indicated they had in Internet publications, forums, blogs, online chat and social networks – over 70% in all cases.
While the findings demand that further study is undertaken, especially in light of the daily increase in Internet users, the draft cybercrime bill has been passed by the National Assembly and awaits approval from the Senate to be made law. The bill was blocked on multiple occasions and continues to be criticized by a handful of local NGOs and politicians who find it runs counter to international best practice and freedom of expression standards. Section 34 of the bill is one of the most problematic clauses open to abuse. It reads:
“Power to manage on-line information: (1) The Authority is empowered to manage information and issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any information through any information system. The Authority may direct any service provider to remove any information or block access to such information, if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.”
Other clauses that grant investigating authorities sweeping powers highlight PECB’s conceptualization within the trope of anti-terrorism. In the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism launched in 2015, where government officials and a report by the interior ministry stated that the cybercrime draft bill should be compatible with NAP in order to counter terrorism and extremism, the bill is viewed as “one of the cornerstones of NAP” with its focus on blocking anti-state content, and allowing greater surveillance of citizens.
A 2015 report published by Privacy International (PI) noted that, “communications surveillance – of phone and Internet protocol (IP) traffic, domestically and internationally – and other forms such as biometric or device registration, is justified by the government as necessary to counter these internal and external threats, even as it becomes less and less targeted and more widespread against ordinary civilians.”
The PI investigation found that mass network surveillance has been ongoing since 2005, using technology provided by local companies and foreign companies, including Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8 and Utimaco. Interestingly, and in line with some of the findings of this report, it was noted that there was popular support for such surveillance, in the context of the ongoing war on terror and continuing attacks.
Regarding surveillance, respondents to CGCS’s Pakistan survey indicated that they believed the Internet allowed the government to perform surveillance of citizens (48% agreed), although 46% of respondents indicated they did not know whether this was the case, once again indicating unawareness/a lack of clarity on the issue.
The survey’s findings are just the start of a profoundly important undertaking to understand how Pakistanis view the Internet, and in particular, their approval or disapproval of the legislative changes being undertaken by the state. CGCS’s survey has revealed that there may be a greater diversity of opinion, even on matters related to censorship of blasphemous content, than what is commonly perceived. It has also shown that there still are a significant percentage of people who remain undecided or unclear about some fundamental questions regarding cyberspace. There is then a great need to rethink Internet governance by first understanding what a public of 200 million feels and thinks about cyberspace, the social and political determinants of these opinions, and ways in which these opinions might or might not legitimize policies related to citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information online.
Jahanzaib Haque is a journalist and researcher who has been associated with the top media groups in Pakistan. He is currently, Chief Digital Strategist for the Dawn Media Group, focused on convergence and editorial integration of the company for the digital age. In parallel, Haque is also Editor of Dawn.com (Pakistan’s largest English-language news site) and DawnNews.tv (Dawn’s Urdu-language news site), heading the two portals in terms of content, online strategy and planning. Haque also write regularly on local media, the internet and human rights in relation to cyberspace.
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