The Government of Pakistan, through the Ministry of Information Technology recently placed ads in local newspapers asking for proposals to establish an internet content filtering system in the country. There have been lots of concerns recently that content which is not compatible with Pakistan’s “cultural norms” is being viewed and accessed. At the moment, Pakistan has a completely open and free access policy. You can get to any kind of content, at any time.
Internet filtering and censorship is not new, nor is it unique to Pakistan. In many European countries, certain websites are banned because they feature Aryan supremacist, racist or Nazi propaganda. Others are banned because they violate copyright laws specific to a country. In China, the “Great Firewall” is a legendary piece of internet infrastructure that appears to be ever present and ever watchful. In the UAE – Dubai included – pornographic websites are blocked, with a message informing the user that access to the destination website is curtailed due to its content not being in accordance with the culture of the UAE. As the Arab Spring has unfolded, we’ve discovered that Egypt and other Arab states have been implementing content filtering, blocking and eavesdropping. US companies like Bluecoat systems, in fact, have been providing the Syrian regime with content filtering and censorship technology.
It is important to point out that the Government of Pakistan is not going about this like Egypt did, in secret. They are announcing their intent and potential change in policy in the open media. Further, the content filtering proposal appears to be targeted squarely at pornographic content, not political speech or voices of dissent. And finally, there is a strong voice within the country which opposes the deployment of any such system of oversight or censorship. That said, why would the Ministry of Information even try to impose these limitations? There are so many ways in which people can easily get around these systems, that the investment made in preventing access often simply goes down the toilet. Not to mention, that efforts to block such access will usually end up getting negative press, people will question the intentions of the government vociferously and net-net, the Government and people will be losers in this entire process.
I think the GoP needs to realize that one of Pakistan’s strengths is an atmosphere of openness and freedom with regard to the blogosphere, the internet, television media and print media. Pakistan is way ahead of other developing countries in having cultivated and promoted this freedom. It is no longer possible for any person in power, or even any institution (yes, any) to prevent people from twittering, facebooking, blogging, skyping, texting and IM’ing opinions and content – regardless of what that is. Any attempt to get in the way of people’s opinions – even if they are unpleasant to some - is doomed to failure.