Sunday September 19, 2021

Blocking SIMs of the unvaccinated only option?

August 01, 2021

ISLAMABAD: The government has again warned the unvaccinated of blocking mobile SIMs.

If the government seems serious about penalising individuals for their negligence, it should not cause a harm to any major sector contributing a lot to the economy rather it should take measures disincentivise specific individuals.

The best option could be suspension of Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) at first stage for two weeks and if the person does not come forward then the blocking of CNICs could be considered.

However, the telecom players are quite perturbed with this latest warning. They cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Keeping that in mind, it comes as an unpleasant surprise to hear Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry announcing that if voluntary Covid-19 vaccinations do not increase, the government will consider blocking mobile phone SIMs around the country.

Cell phone service and internet suspension has become a common tactic for governments to control potential unrest in developing countries. Such suspensions are more harmful than beneficial to the democratic process.

People around the developed world view technology as a great tool for democracy. However, in the other parts of the world, people have realised to a great extent that technology also holds the power to be used against the people that it is meant to connect. Of course, such controls are explained as useful in stopping the spread of misinformation or hate speech, but such explanations can also mask ulterior motivation in many cases.

SIM blocking can even hinder the supply of critical medicines and deployment of medical services. The National Command Operation Centre has declared communication an essential service, especially in emergencies and must not be taken away.

In Pakistan’s case, where communication service penetration is already inadequate, the government should do more to connect people.

Many small-scale merchants and organisations in Pakistan derive most of their revenue by advertising their products and services in public WhatsApp groups, allowing hundreds of buyers to see advertisements at a time. By blocking vital communication channels, the government would be putting pressure not only on such businesses, but also on network operators and immense stress on the public. Entire families around the country rely on a single CNIC for everyone’s mobile phone SIMs. If that one person volunteering his or her CNIC for everyone’s connectivity has his or her SIM blocked, everyone in the household pays the price.

This communication blocking is among the primary reasons why Foreign Direct Investors have reason to show reluctance to do business in Pakistan. There are some other solutions that the government can consider, for the purpose of encouraging vaccination, such as taxation, blocking of CNICs/driver’s licence, domestic travel restrictions etc.

This approach would allow the government to responsibly tackle the challenge of vaccination, instead of allowing the private sector to bear the losses.

Blocking communication services also hinders freedom of speech —- a basic, fundamental right to express opinion without censorship, pressure, or fear of punishment or worse. This freedom has to be respected by the government and must not be threatened.