The debate: What is free internet? Who decides what can be filtered?

Efforts have been made by governments around the world, both authoritarian and democratic, to shut down Web sites, silence bloggers, filter out certain words or censor negative information.In order to highlight the diverse opinions on internet regulations and the concept of ‘Free Internet’ we will be publishing a wide range of opinions to get the debate going. The idea that ‘morality’ and ‘objectionable content’ is subjective, can be seen through these opinion pieces. Here’s one by Dr. Muddassar Farooq,
Professor & Head (Department of Electrical Engineering) FAST-NUCES Islamabad

Pieces published here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bolo Bhi Team, unless otherwise stated. 

I– in principle — do not agree with the so-called fancy term “Free Internet” because that does not exist. The word “Freedom” has at least two dimensions: (1) the freedom to access any information on the Internet; and (2) the guarantee that my privacy is not breached (while I a surfing) due to eavesdropping. No country (to the best of my knowledge) in the world guarantees both freedoms to its citizens (especially in post 9/11 arena). For example, in Germany nobody can say anything about “Holocaust” because it is protected under a Law as an exception.

The constitution of a country defines (at least in the civilized world) everything — dos and do nots — and our constitution says that “Pakistan is an Islamic Republic”. In other word, our Parliament decided with the needed majority that we are not going to be a Secular country. Those of us who want to make Pakistan a Secular country should keep on following their struggle but until the Constitution is amended, merely voicing concerns on Secular paradigms is of little legal value.

Once we want to filter the contents three types of things — based on our religion and culture — come to ones mind: (1) contents related to Blasphemy; (2) pornographic adult content; and (3) Anti-state content. I believe our constitution allows us to block the first two types because of its foundation in religion; however, the anticipated misuse (or fear of misuse) is blocking “anti-state content” (recall arena of dictators in Pakistan).

I suggest the following road-map, if we were to have this system

1. RFP has given approximately 1 month to respond to the call. I have been writing ICTRDF proposal; therefore, rest assured that most of the proposals would be third party vendor solutions or adapting already developed solutions. Writing a knowledge-driven idea cannot happen within a month. This undue haste is creating the impression that the Board wants to favor some company that has already a solution (may be inappropriate for this purpose). If we have lived for 15 years without such a system, we could live for couple of more years as well but let us first develop consensus on the need and requirements of the system by consulting all stakeholders.

2. If we were to have that system ultimately deployed, then first bring all stakeholders on a table — Politicians, Religious Scholars, IT experts, Policy Analysts etc. Since PM is the chairman of the Board, an act of Parliament is the best option to back this solution. The same act could clearly identify a committee — consisting of 5 judges of Supreme Court nominated by the Judicial Commission — that is authorized to issue an order to block the websites. No body in the establishment (Civil or Military) can be assigned this duty. This would ensure that if some agencies are pissed off with a site, they could not block it. Similarly, the people in the government could not arbitrarily declare a site as “anti-state” if it is criticizing the government.

To conclude, let us not put the “cart in front of the horse”. Once the Parliament has an act, I can say with pride that if the Parliament of Germany says “No comments on Holocaust” as a Law and everyone respects that then everyone must respect the decision of the “Pakistani Parliament” as well. The technology can be developed later (or in parallel) once we have a consensus-driven legal framework. Last but not least, blocking the websites would not merely solve the problem because of mirror sites. The requirement to detect and classify banned content (an accurate content filtering system) is also needed. Just to highlight the challenge, we were unable to develop an accurate “skin filter” that has high detection accuracy and low false alarms. Such an intelligent system is a true challenge and falls with regular ICTRDF R & D proposals category as well.

I wish you and ICTRDF best of luck. I hope my suggestions would provide a comprehensive review to the problem and might help in developing and refining a better Website Blocking and Filtering law (or policy) and implementation strategies.

Blog Comments

It is really good to know that someone in our country too is voicing against this Filtration system. Everyone should have free and uncensored access to internet. Thank you for your work and let us know what we can do in this regard.

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