ANI Photo | Pakistan’s complete ban on websites indicates lack of understanding

After Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s intervention, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) lifted the ban on Wikipedia, but such arbitrary decisions by the country’s apex internet regulatory body are not new, the Tribune reported.
The Tribune reported that either it is the failure of the regulator to understand how the internet works or an outright ban is considered the easy way out that the access to a particular website or application is cut off instead of blocking the objectionable or blasphemous content. Usama Khilji, a digital rights expert, believes that it is the former.
“Policymakers and the regulators do not understand how the internet works because if they did, they would realise that nothing is broadcasted to you on the internet like television,” opined Khilji, adding that this gives users the opportunity to choose what they want to read or see and what not to.
“It is important to have people who head the regulatory body understand the internet because banning websites is not the answer. Since we are the fastest growing market for application downloads and the internet, bans effectively deprive the entire populace of either information or a voice,” Usama Khilji, a digital rights expert said.
Concurring with Khilji, Umer Gilani, a constitutional lawyer based in Islamabad, was of the view that the Constitution envisions reasonable restrictions on the right to information “and a complete ban is not a reasonable restriction.” He further said that regulating behaviour in the public sphere as per moral standards made sense but there was a need to draw a distinction between what falls in the public and private sphere, as reported by the Tribune.
“The internet falls in the private sphere because users have the choice of controlling what they view and read. Just because a few users are engaging with or posting objectionable content does not mean the entire country has to pay the price,” remarked Gilani.

It is pertinent to mention during the proceedings of the YouTube ban case back in 2013, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, who was at the Lahore High Court at that time, observed “in today’s digital age, information over the internet cannot be blocked but can be intelligently regulated. There are no borders or walls that can limit this information from flowing into Pakistan unless of course we shut down the internet completely and sever our links with the outside world.”
However, nearly a decade after Justice Shah’s observations, Wikipedia’s ban proves that the regulator has not rethought the banning policy.
When asked about this reliance on banning, Khilji replied: “There is an obsession with controlling what happens on the internet because the regulator or policymakers cannot digest that the internet is becoming democratised and websites will not buckle to their censorship demands.”
The Tribune reported that answering a question regarding the adverse impact bans have on Pakistan’s growing technology market, Khilji said that arbitrary bans like Wikipedia one shatter investor confidence.
“Technology-related activities contributed some $3.5 billion to the country’s economy in 2022 and when they hear about the country’s banning culture they are less inclined to engage with the country or open up an office space here.” On the other hand, Gilani does see a slight ray of hope in the banning procedure adopted by the PTA in the Wikipedia ban.
“This time around the regulator gave 48 hours, in which they degraded the services to the website, to let Wikipedia explain their stance and then banned the website once the time had lapsed; instead of the usual banning without an opportunity for a hearing,” said Gilani, adding that this was a more nuanced way of banning not seen before. Despite the ray of hope, the lawyer does not see an end to the banning culture anytime soon.
“The people in charge of the internet’s regulation have a traditional sense of morality and enforce it on the entire country. Bans will only stop when the regulator stops expecting that everyone has the same moral compass,” said Gilani while talking to the Express Tribune. (ANI)

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