Islamabad, April 29, 2013: Updates from the 7th hearing held on April 26, 2013 for Net Freedom Petition (Bytes For All v. Federation of Pakistan - WP 958/2013) at the Lahore High Court are important, futuristic but have raised concerns from the perspective of larger Internet and human rights in the country. This is a writ petition by Bytes for All, Pakistan supported by Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).
The hearing on 26th April focused two areas of legal and remedial importance:
a) to determine possibilities and way forward for unblocking of Youtube and other websites blocked with little or no official justification, keeping in consideration all possible sensitivities of the matter.
b) to devise a mechanism so that internet censorship does not become an exercise in arbitrary executive action.
Considering that a great case had been built by the Petitioners’ Counsel during the earlier phases of the proceedings, it had been well determined that censorship is a repressive, anti-human rights, anti-progressive, and anti-people act, the 7th hearing has taken a turn, which we feel is problematic and may eventually lead to more, not fewer curbs.
B4A feels that instead of determining how to undo censors and communication blocks, the overall direction of the proceedings turned towards determining how to institutionalize censorship via a regulatory mechanism.
Bytes for All has always opposed such notions in the past, and will continue to do so, for such bodies always tend to be hijacked by views of a select group of individuals, their whims, and personal agendas influenced by irrational narrative.
During the course of hearing, PTA and Amicus discussing the possibility of blocking HTTPS if not only alarming but will have major consequences on the privacy rights and freedom of expression of the common citizens. According to PTA's representative, it was impossible to block specific URLs on a website, however, this statement proved to be false and misleading, when over the weekend, PTA blocked a song
by “Beygairat Brigade”
considered to be criticizing the role of Pakistan's military establishment in Pakistani politics. The specific URL of the song was blocked on Vimeo.com, while rest of the website was functional. This is exactly how Youtube can be opened by removing few URLs of the controversial film, while making the rest of the website accessible to the citizens again.
Furthermore, several other alarming aspects detrimental to Internet and human rights came to the light. It was suggested by one of the amicus that HTTPS may be considered for blocking in Pakistan, which would allow individual websites to be censored easily, making way for the opening of YouTube. PTA also hinted at the possibility of blocking Twitter at some point soon.
Bytes for All, Pakistan believes that this is atrocious and goes against the very essence of this petition and years of struggle that we have dedicated our work to. Censorship is not a solution, it is a problem!
It is important to reiterate that once the Pandora’s box of censorship and regulatory mechanisms is opened with compromised endorsements of activist groups, all civil society powers will be lost to oppressive regimes and political agendas. Therefore, it is very important to rethink such moves and take an uncompromising stand on these issues of civil and political rights.
Bytes for All, Pakistan’s official view
remain that in order to intellectually progress, Pakistan needs Open Internet with responsible citizenry. Citizens should have the liberty of choice; as opposed to any other views demanding blocked communication channels, imposing censorship on the people, who are morally policed and where independent faculties of reason and decision making become non-existent.
Let us not discuss, how to kill Net Freedom even selectively. Let us find ways to protect it unconditionally. This is only possible, when all stakeholders unite to maintain pressure on authorities and stop providing them cover on their malicious agendas of curbing people’s voices in Pakistan.
Earlier, we learnt that the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) had little or no role in the current ongoing censorship and the such decision-making was taking place within the Ministry of Interior. This is why, we warmly welcome the honorable Justice Mansoor Ali Shah’s decision to call Dr. Sania Nishtar, Federal Minister of IT, Government of Pakistan in the court and present her views.
We are very hopeful that Dr. Nishtar will present a fair view of declining Net Freedom in Pakistan, and revitalize MoIT’s powers to deliver back to the citizens’ basic Internet rights upholding online freedom of expression, privacy, access to information and choice of individual decision making.
Furthermore, we once again urge all human rights groups in the country and beyond to unite and help us towards a common goal of restoration of civil liberties.
We reiterate, Censorship is not a solution, it is a problem!
About Bytes for All, Pakistan
Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan is a human rights organization and a network of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals and practitioners. It experiments and organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening social justice movements in the country. Its mission is “ICTs for development, democracy and social justice”. www.bytesforall.pk
For more information (and please note the change in the office address):
Bytes for All, Pakistan
House 273, Street 17, Sector F- 10/2, Islamabad, Pakistan
Cell. +92 51 2110494-95