Tuesday 26 July 2016

SumVoices: Internet Freedom a Boon for Pakistan's Democracy

Our last installment of SumVoices featured Algerian journalist and blogger, Rim Hayat Chaif, in English and Arabic. This month we bring you insight from Yasser Latif Hamdani, a lawyer, writer and activist from Lahore, Pakistan. His areas of interest include internet freedom and politics.

Pakistani flag and map
[Source: BOLDG/Shutterstock.com]
As an optimist, I believe that the internet is a formidable tool that will deliver Pakistan from the antediluvian notions of state and society which have held back its people from evolving into a truly democratic society. It is no secret that Pakistani society since the 1980s, when the then military dictator sought to Islamize it, has been held hostage by clerics and an increasingly reactionary state.  Their monopoly over thought was partially broken in the early 2000s when there was a boom in independent TV channels. Internet was still a luxury then but it caught up in the decade that followed.  Opinions, sometimes unsavoury and sometimes wholly contradictory to the deeply held beliefs of most of Pakistan’s population, came into circulation.

In 2010, the guardians of society struck back.  A ragtag religious outfit convinced the Lahore High Court to order a temporary ban of Facebook by objecting to blasphemous materials on it.  Later in 2012, Pakistan’s government blocked YouTube in response to rioting after a blasphemous video was uploaded onto the platform.  I fought this block in court for three years and am happy to report that it was finally unblocked earlier this year.  Now, Pakistan’s federal government is planning to bring an overbroad and ambitious piece of legislation called the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act to control the medium which would empower them to censor the internet at will.  The government in Pakistan appears deathly afraid of the internet and the potential impact it could have on society.

Censoring the internet now is easier said than done.  Three years of the YouTube ban forced Pakistan’s 35 million internet users to search for alternative means of accessing the website. Refusing to leave anything to chance, most people I know have VPNs and proxy websites.  Furthermore, Pakistan’s telecom regulator, invariably saddled with the responsibility of the proposed legislation, knows that it has missed the bus.  Truth be told, many within the government are secretly pleased with the notion. After all, tomorrow they might be in the opposition and therefore do not want to put in place measures that would hurt them then.

For civil society activists and progressives in general, the internet has been a great boon.  It has helped refuseniks and freethinkers organize.  Communities and groups that have been systematically marginalized in the country since the 1980s have taken their message to social media.  Inherent contradictions of society have been laid bare.  Obviously, this has also led to a spike in the use of blasphemy laws.  The religious right, after all, has also been organizing.  As a whole, though, thanks to the internet, Pakistan’s society has been beset by an intellectual upheaval and that I stipulate is a good thing.  With the recent advent of 4G telecom services, this is only going to increase. 

The next battle in Pakistan’s long march to internet freedom and consequent social freedom is the fight for net neutrality.  Sooner or later the telecom regulator will have to implement that principle through regulation.  Once that happens, there will be firm legal basis for the optimism I have expressed above.  Simultaneously, digital rights activists will have to fight the battle against privacy and surveillance which the government is hell bent in bringing through legislation. 

Interesting times are ahead for Pakistan. 

Digital Freedom Resources for Pakistan:

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