Magna Carta for internet freedom

Shahab Siddiqi says that the government authorities’ inability to come up with answers to some of the questions raised on Internet freedom is quite telling


To say the least, 2013 has been an interesting year for Internet freedom activists. When former-NSA-analyst-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information on the US government’s complex web of spying programs, it was the biggest revelation in a year filled with instances where major questions have been raised about the limits to which a government can go before infringing on basic human rights of privacy and freedom of speech.

In a move out of an Internet activist’s dream, Edward Snowden blew the cover on the arsenal of programs the US government’s NSA has active around the world. Words like PRISM, Boundless Informant and Tempora filled the media streams, as the world’s biggest champions of free speech and individual freedom were caught with their hands in the jar. The program that has really made everyone jump has been PRISM which relies on the compliance of companies. These companies have been made to give direct access to the NSA, who can retrieve personal data of users and analyse them for “threats”. This raises major questions about the reliability of Internet companies and whether they can be trusted with our personal information in the face of pressure of government authorities.

We are also closing in on 11 months since the popular video-sharing platform YouTube was banned in Pakistan

But before we get too busy pointing and tut-tutting at the US government’s blatant disregard for individual privacy and the heavy-handedness employed in the name of Cyber policing, we have to take a look at things at home. In the calendar year of 2013, independent reports have surfaced showing evidence of technology capable of spying on an individual’s internet activity and limiting access to chosen parts of the Internet in Pakistan. Technology, Internet Freedom activists across the country insist, is being employed by the State at the cost of the rights of privacy and access of citizens much like the ones employed by the US government’s NSA.

We are also closing in on 11 months since the popular video-sharing platform YouTube was banned in Pakistan. The ban came after a video of blasphemous nature surfaced on the popular website sparking violent protests by the Muslim community around the world. In the 11 months since, the government of Pakistan’s relevant authorities PTA, Ministry of IT and Google, owners of YouTube have been locked in ridiculous exchanges and been unable to come up with a workable solution to either remove the offensive content or block its access and reopen the website in the country. Meanwhile, close to 30 million Pakistanis with Internet capabilities are unable to access the Internet’s largest platform for entertainment and education; something that seems unlikely to change any time soon because of the political volatility of the issue. Conservative PML-N can hardly risk the ire of the religious groups so early in its new term in office.

But regardless of whether the reason for the sustained ban is lack of political motivation or technicalities, PTA and other relevant government authorities’ inability to come up with answers to some of the questions raised on Internet freedom since the ban has been quite telling. The lack of transparency on the processes established to enforce the existing cyber laws and the lack of clarity even among those enforcing them is quite alarming. There exists no clear definition of “undesirable content” nor is there any clear process through which a decision is reached on whether certain online content or website is “inimical to the public interest” or not. If we analyse the recent banning of websites in Pakistan and review court records of proceedings of suits against the State by Internet Freedom activists, it becomes quite clear that at best the PTA and other relevant authorities have arbitrary standards by which they have been barring access to digital content; relying more on moral sway than legal requirement.  At the first sign of political dissent, Facebook pages are taken down (with the disturbingly prompt assistance of the social media company) making one wonder if anybody stopped to check if this was in accordance with Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan, which establish the right of the individual citizen to freedom of expression and access to information.

A parliamentary committee should involves all relevant stakeholders and clarify in black and white what exactly constitutes as “undesirable content” 

In short, the PTA needs help. They’ve been hunting a housefly with a rapier for far too long. It is time for the elected representatives of Parliament to wake up to the serious issue of Internet Freedom and start using their sovereign authority to help bring some method to this chaos. There needs to be a parliamentary committee that involves all relevant stakeholders and clarifies in black and white what exactly constitutes as “undesirable content” removing all ambiguity and space for manipulation or misuse. The Ministry of Information and Technology, with the assistance of the Superior Courts and independent experts, needs to come up with a clear process and criteria for the identification, analysis and handling of questionable content. Thirdly, and most importantly, there needs to be an oversight committee involving members of Parliament, members of the Higher Courts and Internet Freedom experts that review actions taken by the PTA and ensures that they are in accordance with the framework setup by the parliamentary committee.

Such a Magna Carta for Internet Freedom is vital in ensuring that law enforcement authorities and the PTA have well defined perimeters while performing their essential duties of countering threats to national security and child protection alongside the protection of basic human rights in the digital world. Because as things stand right now, they come across as a bunch of trigger-friendly jocks armed with silver bullets with a fuzzy description of a werewolf, hunting in a dog pound.


Shahab Siddiqi is English Content Team lead at PakVotes and can be reached at [email protected]

He tweets as @UncleFu

One Response to “Magna Carta for internet freedom”
  1. Ahmed says:

    Do you seculars consider blasphemy a sin or even a crime?

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