When the ICT R&D fund in Pakistan announced a call for proposals earlier this year for a “National URL Filtering and Blocking System” inviting companies, academia and research institutions to bid; my reaction was of shock and disbelief. Not because censorship is a new phenomenon in Pakistan — in fact it has been legitimized and often protected under the constitution camouflaged as an initiative to counter blasphemy, immorality and national security threats — but because of the audacity of making the bid publicly, and also involving institutions that are likely to be censorship’s biggest victims.
It is perhaps the first time that a government has announced its plans for censorship publicly. In the past years, Pakistan’s government has been involved in covertly censoring the Internet, the acquiring of a National URL Filtering and Blocking System would be the last nail in the coffin. In a security state where civil liberties repeatedly succumb to national security measures, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight for Internet freedom. Having been a part of anti-censorship campaigns before, two things were absolutely clear, the state will use its usual ploys — religion, morality and national security– for unquestionable authority; and for an anti-censorship campaign to be successful it must make use of the same tactics. An argument, which the state cannot refute.
When a state embroils its citizens in an ‘either you are with us or against us’ argument every dissent is at risk of being equated to treason– or in an Islamic country, blasphemy. Therefore the most important key player in anti-censorship strategy is to steer the argument away from contentious issues. That’s not to say that civil rights should be surrendered but the narrative needs to more coherent, logical than it is defensive. The first response was to demand answers from the government, on what had provoked such a decision, if stakeholders were taken on board, if they are aware of the repercussions of such a system and a demand to take all stakeholders on board before any decision is made on the proposal.
Coordinating local and global action
As expected the calls for accountability from civil society were met with silence. Nevertheless, setting up the tone for the campaign; actively resisting the impending firewall. The call for accountability also made it easier for us to approach political figures in power, who otherwise refrain from engaging with civil society campaigns that target the government proactively as their initial reaction.
The announcement also alarmed the global community to respond to Pakistan’s government. I believe this was and remains one of the most crucial part of the campaign. However, as international pressure was building up it was important to consider that advocacy campaigns do not exist in a vacuum, and take into account the cultural and geopolitical context. For example, countering a ban on blasphemous content with an argument on freedom of expression in a country like Pakistan is not only counterproductive but life threatening. Therefore, it was important to have a coordinated, global and local action.
Before the global community could be involved a few questions needed to be considered. When the government is using national security as an argument, is involving international community to demand an end to the decision a wise step? Especially, organizations based in the United States? Will a call to uphold democratic values by international organizations be discarded in the usual ‘we do not believe in you version of democracy’ fashion? Will international organizations shouting at the government uphold democracy, or help or make it easy for the state to curtail dissent by deeming them as western ploys?
Nevertheless, a global campaign, if organized and strategic, maximizes impact. The campaign needed to be simple, effective and widespread, giving priority to issues that would most concern the government:
- Economic: Impact of censorship on businesses, entrepreneurs and innovation.
- Academic: academic paralysis, with a rigorous filtering system, the Web sphere will be limited, hence it would mean less content accessible for carrying out research (example: UAE where in trying to censor porn, students could no longer access research papers on breast cancer).
- Democratic culture: In a country where public discourse is limited, shrinking the public sphere will be damaging. With elections nearing, this could greatly impact the government’s claim to advance democracy.
- Security & Privacy: It would permit authorities to sniff into your conversations. Blanket surveillance.
- Social networks will not only be prone to surveillance but could be blocked just because another user has put up content that authorities consider ‘objectionable’.
- During the 2007 emergency imposed by Musharraf, the media crackdown resulted in an outpouring of information on social networks. These were actively used to mobilize people, spread information regarding police brutality on journalists and protesters and work as a news portal in the absence of mainstream media. Authorities recognize that this could be crucial in the future, hence complete control would enable them to censor political dissent.
- A huge number of Baloch websites have already been blocked, and we have no reassurances or reasons to believe that a ‘flip flop’ switch for the Internet will not be used to silence mainstream voices. Imagine mainstream media websites being banned under the same pretext.
While it is important to build pressure on the government it is also crucial to pressure international surveillance companies not to sell surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes. Civil society in Pakistan, urged international organizations to call for surveillance companies to not bid for the proposal, five out of eight companies responded with a commitment.
This, I believe has paved way for activists living under Internet crackdown and surveillance to pressure the companies to stop aiding authoritarian regimes. Similar letters were issued to academic institutes to commit not to consider the government’s initiative and inform them of the repercussions it will have on academia.
When international organizations wrote to the government informing them about the impact this could have on economy, academia, trade and democracy — highlighting democracy and freedom of expression only after the economy factor– the authorities had little choice but to respond. The tone had to be set through the mainstream media as well; hence a press kit with simply worded FAQs helped in getting the issue significant coverage in local press. Proactively approaching journalists resulted in the issue being covered even in the Urdu press, again the pertinent point here was informing the media how this could impact them and hence ‘owing the campaign’.
A few weeks ago, the Secretary of IT, made a verbal commitment to Bushra Gohar, Member National Assembly, that the plans for the filtering system have been shelved. Thus far there has been no official statement. However, the Ministry has made verbal commitments over the week, shifting the blame on the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. There’s both a positive and negative aspect of the situation at present: the negative being that the authorities are most likely to continue censoring covertly, and that the verbal commitment is a delaying tactic. It's positive because of the apparent rift between government sectors and the reluctance to take the blame can only work in our favor.
I strongly feel that the campaign was a success because of consistent pressure from organizations globally. Even though we have still only received verbal commitments, I believe that the success lies in how we planned the campaign to focus on issues such as businesses, trade, academia and economy, steering the debate away from the more controversial issues of blasphemy.
Religion and morality are often used for unquestionable authority and have thus far been a successful tool. Rather than reacting to state's use of these issues and creating an ‘either you are with us or against us situation’ we focused on things that really matter. When international organizations wrote to the government speaking about how it impacts academia, businesses, user privacy and democratic culture, the authorities had little choice but to reconsider the repercussions of such a system. There is no doubt that the success and power lies in coordinated, strategic and consistent efforts enabling us to truly respond as a global community resisting censorship.