Filters, Morality and the Element of Choice

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The Ministry of Information, Technology & Telecom (MoIT) in Pakistan was actively considering filtering softwares as a solution to unban YouTube. According to reports, these filters are already in place. This, to them, is the ultimate solution to all evil that exists on the Internet. Why is that a big deal? Well, for one, it is a direct infringement on my constitutional right to privacy. Let’s talk about how.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that the world we are living in currently now is called ‘the Internet.’ Similar to that what we see in the Matrix or Tron Legacy. Let’s say that when you step outside of your house to run a few errands, you’re followed by a faceless individual who keeps track of every move you make. How many steps you took to get into your car, where you’re going, what you purchased, how much you spent in your purchase, the route you took on your way back home, what time you walked back into your house. EVERY move you make is documented and watched. We would feel oddly threatened, our liberty and freedom of movement compromised, and I would not feel comfortable living in such a situation. I would do all I could to break free from such a hostile living environment.

Translate this to our life on the Internet. Filters, especially those that do away with HTTPS, do away with secure protocols that ensure communication is encrypted and only accessible to the intended recipient, not anyone along the way. If this is done away with, or tampered with, it would mean all our emails, Skype conversations, purchases on Amazon, every move we make online will be or is already being documented and tracked – by the state and whoever else has access. Why would the state be interested in knowing that I purchased the latest copy of Robert Jordan’s book online? Why must I divulge the private conversations I have with my friends on Facebook? Would the state consider that as a source of gathering intelligence? How much intelligence would they precisely gather when my friends and I talk about how we unabashedly wept during Marley & Me?

Another question arises. What of those pages which clearly state that the connections over which they are being transmitted are secure? Amazon, for example, when you’re about to make a purchase which involves you putting in your credit card information. What about those banking websites which allow you to make transactions online? Does that mean that with these filtering-cum-monitoring softwares, the government will be able to track my personal finances too? The answer to these questions unfortunately, is yes.

When you go onto websites, for example, while I write this article, I’m listening to music on Soundcloud with the link on the address bar appearing as, “https://soundcloud.com/”, the HTTPS implies a secure connection. The “S” is the clue. If and where the HTTPS appears to be green on your address bar, the connection is untampered and secure. It has not been broken anywhere. Where the link on the address bar starts with “HTTP”, that is not a secure connection and can be easily intercepted. All banking websites and social networking websites operate on an HTTPS protocol which makes it difficult – nigh near impossible – for third parties to be privy to personal communication and information. In fact the State Bank has even upgraded to TLS.

So how can filters enable snooping? This is where Man-In-The-Middle attacks come in. What are MITM attacks? Let’s say you’re calling a person you haven’t ever spoken to before, for the first time on the telephone for something as harmless as a reservation at a restaurant. Someone picks up your call, you believe this person to be a representative at the restaurant. Simultaneously, the restaurant receives a call from someone pretending to be you. They give your information to the person at the other end, whereas a completely different person, after listening to everything you have said, passes on that information to the restaurant. You hang up the phone believing it is the restaurant you have spoken to, not suspecting that someone else, someone completely unknown to you, has noted down everything you have said. With HTTPS connections, MITM attacks are the only way around and filters would have to employ this deceitful method to block.

A point that may or may not be appropriate to mention here is that I love travelling. It proves to be quite a harrowing experience with me clutching that green passport. I’m subjected to a number of oddly violating security checks. My most recent trip was to Bangkok, where everyday I would come across a temple right outside one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls. I would always look at the temple-goers respectfully. Does my walking in front of a temple and respecting the beliefs of others make me a bad Muslim? Does the choice I made secure my eternal damnation? I’d like to think not. Why? Because like everything in this world, God gave me a choice and the capacity to choose what’s best for me. And I chose to bow down in front of the Ka’bah.

If I were a perfect rendition of our government, I would not just cease to walk in front of that mall, I would never set foot in Thailand ever again. In fact, I would never set foot in any country in South East Asia. Makes perfect sense. Perhaps when they see that I’m not travelling to their country, when they see that one empty seat on the airplane which would otherwise be occupied by me, they would mend their ways and go to a mosque instead of a temple. Sounds like an excellent plan.

By that logic, the government should revoke diplomatic ties with all non-Muslim states, confiscate everyone’s passports lest they attempt to enter any country. Pakistan International Airlines should stop operating flights land to countries that are not Islamic. Each and every politician who holds a British or an American passport should relinquish his/her dual nationality because British and Americans are predominantly non-Muslims.

What the champions of the Muslim faith do not realize is that every choice we make is a test of a certain degree. A test to affirm our belief in our religion. If I’m surrounded by individuals sipping on alcohol, would I conform? If everyone around me is munching on bacon, would I do the same? If adultery is considered a social norm, would I do it as well? The answer to these questions, is between God and me and not between me and His creations. The aforementioned things can be found in abundance or are being practiced openly in the land of the pure that is Pakistan. The real test is whether we choose to do them or not.

Similarly, YouTube, a global video-sharing website hosts all kinds of content. And as I write this, I’ve clicked on a video that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed by a page called, “The Deen Show,” which is all about Islam and answering questions about religion. It directed me to a link on YouTube, but alas! I cannot access it. By the very same logic that has been applied by our government in restricting access to YouTube, their moral filters prevent me from accessing such religious and Islamic videos. Is that also blasphemy?

The question that I put forward is why the State is being allowed to make decisions for me? Why are choices being eliminated from the public? If the video is blasphemous then why would a country that is populated by such pious Muslims ever, consciously search for the video and watch it? It must be understood that YouTube has numerous videos and unless explicitly searched for, no video will simply appear. Why deprive the populace of this the video-sharing website who utilized this platform for purposes which I assure you do not include watching this particular video.

The verdict lies in the element of choice. The freedom to choose. If a person is as pious as they perceive themselves to be then they will not, out of conscious reverence, search for that video and watch it. If some do, then that matter is between God and themselves. We are neither religious nor moral champions to make decisions for others.

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Research Associate at Bolo Bhi
Osman Ali Ansari has completed his Bachelors in Business Administration from the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science & Technology (SZABIST) and is currently part of the University of London International Programme in the Faculty of Law. He has represented Pakistan in various Model United Nations Conferences including in Geneva, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and London. He is currently a Research & Program Associate at Bolo Bhi and has an avid interest in international humanitarian law, public policy and is passionate about aviation.