Web of control

Digital rights activists, journalists and civil society have found this news to be deeply concerning

By Editorial Board
June 08, 2024
Icons of the popular social media platforms seen in this undated photo. — AFP/File

Most government measures are first revealed through rumours and whispers. Which is why reports that a national firewall may soon be installed on different internet service providers (ISPs) will justifiably be taken seriously. According to a report in this newspaper, this firewall will “identify the locations from where the propaganda material is being originated and the subsequent blockade or diminished coverage of those accounts” and the “main focus will remain on locating the source of such propaganda to nip the evil in the bud”. Needless to say, digital rights activists, journalists and civil society have found this news to be deeply concerning. While governments have a legitimate interest in safeguarding national security, such measures often encroach upon fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and privacy. This isn’t the first time Pakistan has ventured into controlling online content either. Previous actions – blocking of specific websites and social media platforms as well as restrictive and regressive legislation – had already raised alarms about government overreach.


There is no doubt that we live in an age where information is a weapon. And instead of physical and tangible operations we now have info-warfare – all on social media. From Deep Fake to enemy propaganda to fake news to AI-generated content meant to rile up the people: it is not easy for states to combat the sheer volume of information coming at people from all ends. However, the solution has never been as simple as blocking content. Because eventually content always finds a way and attacks a vulnerable population that is not prepared. Instead, for fake news we need to use fact checking, for bad propaganda we need to use factual information and awareness campaigns – and for reasonable dissent we need to use a sympathetic ear. There is also legitimate fear about the potential abuse of such initiatives. For example, how transparent would a firewall process be? And what safeguards are in place to prevent the suppression of legitimate dissent? One example is the reported possibility of asking people to report their VPN usage. Surely, that violates privacy rights?

Pakistan has already banned X (formerly Twitter) for over three months now. And then we had the rushed-up legislation in Punjab regarding defamation. In fact, starting with PECA, it has been one bad legislation after another when it comes to social media or anything linked to social media. This also seems to have transcended political parties and governments. Whether the PML-N or the PTI, both governments have been enthusiastic about curbing social media influence. Ironically, government officials – including the prime minister of Pakistan – continue to use X and tweet both in Urdu and English, for local and international audiences. Instead of doing anything substantial to counter fake news and disinformation, our knee-jerk response to everything is; block, ban, banish. This is a mistake. The PML-N and its allies should be asking for more freedoms, not less. At least that’s what these parties used to ask for when in opposition. In a democratic society, the free exchange of ideas is essential for progress and accountability. Attempts to stifle dissent, whether through technological means or legal coercion, erode the foundations of democracy and diminish public trust in institutions. As Pakistan moves forward with its national firewall, it must prioritize transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights. Any measures taken to regulate online content must be proportionate, narrowly tailored, and subject to robust oversight. The government should engage in meaningful dialogue with civil society, technology companies, and international stakeholders to ensure that its actions uphold democratic values and protect the rights of its citizens.