“This reflects a deeply flawed counter-terrorism policy”

Published in The News on Sunday on October 13th – Special Report

Sana Saleem, an award-winning blogger, is an activist working on minority rights and internet freedom, and co-founder of Pakistani Internet advocacy group Bolo Bhi

The News on Sunday: What’s your take on the government’s decision to block Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communication channels? Is this the only way to curb crime and terrorism?

Sana Saleem: Access shouldn’t be a victim to national security. The plans to block these are a gross violation of fundamental rights of citizens. None of this helps security. In fact, this reflects a deeply flawed counter-terrorism policy.

In the past, the government suspended cellular services over a dozen times. An important point to note is that when the government suspends GSM networks, it also disables home and car security networks, further risking lives and property.

Rather than taking strong measures for counter-terrorism and centralised intelligence data-sharing to enable better security, the government seems to be determined to violate constitutional rights of its own citizens.

With the new government in power, we had hopes for rethink of past policies. However, in the backdrop of recent announcements and continuing blockage of YouTube, the future of open access remains bleak, unless policy makers take necessary measures to protect right to information.

TNS: What exactly does your organisation (Bolo Bhi) do and how has it resisted state control over internet?

SS: Bolo Bhi is a not-for-profit civil society group that focuses on research-based advocacy to influence policy change. Last year, we resisted government’s attempt to install a URL filtration & blocking system.

The campaign last year had two components. First, it was launched at a national level, seeking out academics, entrepreneurs, small business, parliamentarians, and civil society at large to reach out to the government and inform them about the repercussions of the pending filtration system, which included blanket surveillance and ad-hoc censorship on content online. The aim was to build an understanding of how surveillance and censorship impact various segments of society, most importantly, the economic and academic impact of surveillance and censorship technology.

The second targeted the international community. This campaign was designed to ask international human rights groups to build pressure on Western surveillance technology companies not to sell the technology to Pakistan. When we reached out to eight leading companies that sell such technology, five of them committed not to sell to Pakistan owing to increased censorship.

This year, our director has been appointed amicus curie in the YouTube case in Lahore High Court (LHC) where she’s been advising the court on policy and civil liberties aspect of the ban.

In the YouTube case, we’ve been providing the court with research on how surveillance technology works and the repercussions of such a technology on citizens’ rights, conducting research on the use of YouTube for academic purposes in Pakistan and submitting citizen letters to the court and the minister on how citizens have been impacted by the YouTube ban.

TNS: How do you think internet censorship harms the interests of citizens?

SS: The United Nations has declared access to internet a basic human right. Over the years, we’ve seen the role communications technology plays in healthcare, education, business and media. Censorship impacts the society at large, it affects the way we communicate and share information. It greatly impacts our own understanding of our society and history.

TNS: Pakistan has signed international covenants on freedom of expression, speech, etc. Is it complying as well?

SS: No it isn’t. The state has consistently violated freedom of expression, citizens’ constitutional right to privacy, and their fundamental right to access information. The right to privacy is an inviolable right mandated by the Constitution of 1973. Similarly, the right to information is a constitutional right. As mentioned earlier, the United Nations passed a resolution in 2012, declaring internet access as a basic human right. So, blocking access is tantamount to denial of this right to citizens.

— By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed


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