The internet cannot be controlled by any one country, despite the best efforts of several governments. As the Snowden leaks reveal, State efforts to control the cyberspace can quickly turn into massive surveillance programmes that infringe on individual rights; a phenomenon quite familiar to Pakistan.
Since 2006, authorities in Pakistan have intermittently blocked social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube for various reasons [See Bolo Bho’s E-Regulation Timeline]. The longest ban Pakistan has ever experienced is the infamous YouTube ban, which was enforced in September 2012 in reaction to the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” posted on YouTube. The ban continues to this day, despite uproar from activists and organizations including Bolo Bhi. In early 2014, the government took the ban one step further by banning VPN software such as Spotflux, to prevent access to blocked sites.Read Bolo Bhi’s analysis of the VPN blockage here.]
The Snowden leaks revealed how the NSA’s surveillance programmes that went beyond espionage in the name of admittedly dubious national interest, and turned into massive surveillance of American as well as foreign citizens. In an episode of “Ab Tou Bolo Bhi” [Bolo Bhi’s flagship TV show] that discussed internet regulation and the Internet Governance Forum in Bali (IGF), Barrister Zahid Jamil defended espionage by pointing out that it was a practice pursued by all countries for the sake of national interest and was not a breach of international law. Sana Saleem countered this argument by pointing out that while espionage may be accepted as the necessary pursuit of private information, “to tap phone calls of a country’s civilians, that’s massive surveillance and a violation of freedom of expression and speech.” The many ways in which Pakistan has limited and censored the internet for its citizens has started a domino effect where netizens in Pakistan are experiencing increased access denial. Pakistan now stands at a risk of becoming a police state with massive surveillance programmes targeted towards users of the internet and other communication technologies.
One example of Pakistan’s descent into surveillance chaos is that of “The Investigation for Fair Trial Act” that was introduced as a counter-terrorism measure but, in fact, is a flawed law with far too many loopholes.Sana Saleem pointed out that the law was possibly rushed through because intelligence agencies needed to submit wiretapped information as proof in pending legal cases, whereas Zahid Jamil opined that the Fair Trial law had limited intelligence officials a great deal, and rather than making intelligence-gathering more convenient, it had restricted officials and did not benefit anyone in any way. Another analysis of thee ffectivity of the law was by Journalist Maham Javaid who dissected the law in detail.
In early 2014, draft of “Cyber Crimes Act 2014” was made public. The proposed law introduced severe punishments for minor offences, along with amendments to existing laws. Founder of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) Nighat Dad described it as fragile and extreme in an op-ed, pointing out that the law was based on the “Indian Information Technology Act 2000” which itself came under fire for encroaching on the privacy of Indian citizens. Bolo Bhi also released a statement criticizing the law, and published a detailed analysis of it.
For the past many years and especially after the Snowden revelations, the global community working on internet freedom and privacy issues has increased focus on counter-surveillance campaigns. A coalition of privacy organizations led by Privacy International, Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation introduced the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance as “Necessary and Proportionate Principles” to minimize surveillance measures around the world and bring them under judicial oversight. If Pakistan were to adopt similar principles in governing the internet without crossing the delicate line between regulation and privacy violation, many of our biggest problems regarding internet censorship would be solved.
Pakistan fits into widely accepted stereotypes about it being a regressive state when it comes to internet regulation. It is unfortunate that authorities in Pakistan are not focused towards creating access, but rather are ensuring that privacy becomes a distant myth. There is little to no focus on increasing access to information as authorities seem to focus more on cracking down on content. Other than failing to formulate laws and policies that protect citizens and uphold their right to speech and access, there is also a lack of transparency and consultation wit, which hinders effective formulation of laws and policies.