Typed-out and that’s all

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

Ask the people on the streets about the proposed VoIP ban, and the response is rather mixed
By Ammar Shahbazi

The Sindh government’s proposal to ban instant messaging and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) applications, such as Skype, WhatsApp, Tango and Viber for three months has drawn anger and ridicule from the public.

Internet users are enraged at their utter helplessness, as the government, flaunting its power, comes up with blanket measures — citing the ever-deteriorating law and order situation in the province.

They say government machinery, which is made up of grey-haired politicians and bureaucrats, is yet to comprehend the dynamics of internet.

“They are at a complete loss,” says Kashfia Altaf, a university student, “You cannot treat internet users like this. It’s a different world. The government is totally clueless when it comes to handling internet.”

At a press conference last week, Sindh Government’s information minister, Sharjeel Memon, called the proposed ban an inevitable step to curb criminals from making extortion calls through these Apps — a norm in the provincial capital Karachi during EidulAzha. He was of the view that the decision would complement the ongoing targeted operation in the city.

However, regular internet users see such an idea as a severe infringement of their right to benefit from the World Wide Web.

In the past several years, the use of VoIP apps like WhatsApp and Skype increased manifold. People have set up home-based business through Skype, where WhatsApp and Viber also became a crucial part of their lives.  

“Banning these Apps will affect people in different ways,” explains Khurram Ishtiaq, a software developer who works for a foreign company from his home in Karachi. “The world in general takes this Apps for granted now. There are e-businesses established on the basis of these tools. It’s like banning electricity for three months, because there is an increase in incidents of electrocutions.”

However, the proposal has its supporters, including the patron-in-chief of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto, who famously tweeted: “Dear Burgers, Sorry abt Skype/Viber/Whatsapp. Excuse us while we catch some terrorists and save some lives. SMS for 3 months. Sincerely BBZ.”

There are also some who like to believe that the use of VoIP Apps in Pakistan is exaggerated. And the wave of criticism on twitter against the decision was overly dramatic.

“Ask the people on the street, they won’t even know what Tango is or how WhatsApp works, even I don’t know,” says Shahid Idrees, another university student. “These Apps became trendy just a few years back, and the idea some of these arm-chair twitter-based activists are trying to give is that we cannot live without them. This is ridiculous. Why does everything becomes a life and death issue?”

Idrees, however, does not support Sindh government’s security strategy. He says the provincial government has a history of taking such extreme measures that only lead to problems for people.

The people of Sindh had in the last PPP-led government braved the most number of mobile service cancellations — spending whole days without connections. Then the YouTube ban followed.

The people in general have resorted to a muted response. The rage is usually typed out, and that’s all. Be it a cell phone network or a website, apart from twitter and other social media outlets, the government’s clampdowns never really propel a massive outrage — not even a memorable public demonstration against such trampling of individual rights. “This goes on to show how much YouTube, Skype or Tango is relevant to the majority of Pakistanis,” adds Idrees.

The ban is still a proposal. The federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, has voiced his disagreement over the idea, saying that he is personally against such an extreme measure. It may be mentioned that banning of websites or applications falls beyond the purview of the provincial government. It’s the federal interior minister who will give the final nod. The net-savvy Skype, WhatsApp users are using their Apps while the federal government makes up its mind.

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