The Sindh government recently announced to place a ban on instant messaging and Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) clients Skype, Viber and a couple of other communication networks for three months in the province for security reasons. The ban has not been made effective so far, largely because of the strong reaction from the general public. Interestingly, the most heated part of the discussion has been on social media, as if provoked by the Bilawal Bhutto tweet addressing ‘burgers’ to stay quiet while “we catch some terrorists and save some lives”.
The decision was taken in the wake of the targeted operation in Karachi; the meeting where the decision was taken was attended by the chief minister and officials of police, rangers and representatives of intelligence agencies.
The objections to the announcement were on many counts. To begin with, it was considered an ill-advised move without a comprehensive understanding of the medium being discussed. The futility of the exercise was pointed out because of the countless other applications which were well left out; the terrorists being always one step ahead than the law enforcers would know all proxies, it was argued. An interesting tweet mentioned the possibility of increased iPhone thefts in the city in the wake of this decision since it was not possible to block iPhone apps.
Other than a general sense of frustration at the inability of the government to tackle the law and order issues through conventional means, this particular announcement was criticised because of the lack of trust in the state itself. The recent history of banning and blocking of various internet sites formed an unhappy collective memory; the continuing ban of Youtube only added salt to the wounds.
Then, in the context of Pakistan, everything gets muddled. Since the state is known to impose censorship of this kind in matters of religion and nationalism, too (though if asked the state would cite security as the consideration even in these two areas), people are not willing to grant it this license in matters of security.
According to some reports, the news about this blockage came the same day when Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, had brought out a report that placed Pakistan among the bottom 10 countries on internet freedom.
So how do the Western countries make themselves secure if internet is used as a tool to wage terrorism against them. Do they not face similar issues? Through an effective surveillance, we are told. The difference is nuanced; one filters the content, the other disallows an application to start with. Surveillance of the kind that the Western countries are able to conduct also breaches privacy of the individual. The debate is on even there and an equally heated one.
Meanwhile, some sense is injected into the powers that be in the province and the flawed decision has not been put into effect so far. These are all issues that we have addressed in today’s Special Report on the block and ban story.