Monday April 22, 2024

Policing the web

By Editorial Board
February 13, 2023

Wikipedia has once again become accessible in Pakistan, after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered the PTA to unblock it, and asked the regulatory authorities not to close down sites without more protocol than seems to have been followed. A three-member committee made of ministers had looked into the matter and ruled that Wikipedia, used by students, researchers and nearly everyone else, needed to be restored, with the world commenting on Pakistan’s unusual ban on the site citing unsavoury content. But the matter goes a little beyond this. We know that PTA has blocked other sites in the past, including YouTube, which was banned for a number of years. And it’s not just the internet. Pakistan has been ban-happy even with entertainment media; only recently we saw controversy over the film Joyland, Punjab choosing to ban it from being screened. There have been other films too that have faced the cut this way. But when it comes to the internet, we should remember that the world wide web is a different beast. Bans or blocks don’t quite work the same way as states and governments think they do.

While the benefits brought to the entire world by the invention, growth and now ubiquity of the internet are plain for all to see, there is a downside as well. There’s indecent imagery, the dark net, and hate speech strewn all across the world wide web. It is virtually impossible to ban all of the sites that offer such content since any ‘ban’ can easily be circumvented through the use of proxy servers. Internet users the world over tend to be more tech-savvy than the politicians who for whatever reason wish to circumscribe their browsing habits. Which is why ‘bans’ tend to become something of an irrelevance in the face of a determined user population. What is the way forward then? Something that can negotiate the increasing value of an open internet without any ‘Great Firewall’ with a state that worries about the content that is accessible to its populace?

The only way forward, say digital rights activists, is to ensure that arbitrary bans are discouraged, users are treated as adults, and children’s usage of the internet is monitored at home by those that are supposed to monitor it: their parents. The state acting as nanny won’t help anyone – the state or the people. PM Shehbaz Sharif has made a good call. We hope that in the future the PTA can make better judgments in determining any potential blocking of websites – which in itself is a debatable way of blocking content in an age where it is virtually near-impossible to do so. The government needs to realize the futility of censoring the internet. Even if one website is banned for objectionable content, that same content can be reproduced on an indefinite number of other sites. Meanwhile, a ban only brings attention to the offensive content. That can hardly be what the government wants to do.