PTA warns that expansive online encyclopedia may be blocked if directives not followed
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on Wednesday announced that it had"degraded" the services of Wikipedia, the expansive online encyclopedia, and warned that the site could be blocked on“account of not blocking/removing sacrilegious contents” within 48 hours since the platform had ignored PTA directives to remove "objectionable content".
The telecommunication authority, in a statement, said that it had approached and urged Wikipedia to block or remove “sacrilegious” contents by issuing a notice under applicable law and court order(s). However, the site failed to comply.
“An opportunity of hearing was also provided,” the statement added, “however, the platform neither complied by removing the blasphemous content nor appeared before the Authority.”
As a result of the “intentional failure” on part of the platform to comply with PTA directions or to appear before it, its services were "degraded" throughout the country for 48 hours.
Moreover, directions to block/remove the reported contents had also been given.
The statement further stated that in the case of non-compliance by Wikipedia to remove the objectionable content, the platform will be blocked within Pakistan for a longer time.
“Restoration of the services of Wikipedia will be reconsidered subject to blocking/removal of the reported unlawful contents. PTA is committed to ensuring a safe online experience for all Pakistani citizens according to local laws,” the statement asserted.
Taking to Twitter, the PTA wrote: “Press Release: PTA has degraded Wikipedia services in the country on account of not blocking/removing sacrilegious contents.”
It must be noted that this is not the first time that the encyclopedia has been blocked in the country or in other countries.
The PTA had earlier issued notices to tech giant Google and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for disseminating "sacrilegious content" through the platforms in 2020.
Speaking on the matter, digital rights experts explained that by “degrading” the platform, the PTA meant to curtail people’s access to it.
“We’ve run some tests,” said digital rights expert Usama Khilji, “and Wikipedia is active on some networks while not on others.”
Terming the move “a joke”, Khilji quoted former senator Aitzaz Ahsan, who in 2012 had, said that banning the entire platform [YouTube] because of objections against some videos was akin to burning the whole library because you don’t like some books.
While talking to Geo.tv, another digital rights activist Asad Baig raised questions and said: “The issue of transparency and magnitude of the move deserves scrutiny.”
“It must be noted that were it the case of spreading hate or inciting violence, a ban would make sense, but since this is not the case and it’s just a few articles the move is excessively counter-productive. You can ban information, but the move ended up proving bad for the country’s image," Baig, the founder of Media Matters for Democracy, said.
He also added that the move had been made arbitrarily without any oversight from the parliament, civil society, or any regulatory body.
“Even if you do want to make such a move, there needs to be a proper mechanism in place, which should be transparent. It did not seem that such a mechanism exists, which makes the move suspect and open to criticism.”
Nighat Dad, a lawyer and digital rights activist, seconded this need for transparency and said: “The PTA has not cited or referenced any law or rule in its statement. However, when you read the document, you can tell it's seemingly working under the framework of the social media rules of 2021, but they have been challenged in the court and their status is unclear.”
Dad, the founder of Digital Rights Foundation, further added: “It has been the attitude of the regulator to ask global platforms to take down content that they find 'hurtful' to the sentiments of Pakistanis. However, they are making this decision on behalf of people without actually taking their opinion into account. Wikipedia is a platform for education more than anything.”
“It seems that there is no agency for users of Pakistan. The response is disproportionate.”
Baig further added: “It must be noted that taking down hate speech and 'sacrilegious' content could be tackled by blocking individual pages on Wikipedia.”
“Generally, the suspension of platforms is counter-productive and weakens our position There is also an issue of oversight on the regulator. Content decisions should be made with a certain amount of parliamentary or civil society oversight which doesn't exist.”