Pakistan seems ready to ban the Internet (again) (well, parts of it)!
On the face of it, this is Internet banning silly season all over again. But wait. Maybe, this is different. Maybe, its not even a bad thing! Maybe, this is exactly what we need!
But before I explain why this may be so, here are the essential facts. The machinations of banning the Internet in Pakistan are not new. It has sometimes been done to silence political speech (and here), but its more common and certainly its recent incarnation is in the name of religion. Of course, the frenzy was at its height recently with the ‘Facebook ban.’ Now it seems that the Lahore High Court has ordered the banning of an entire range of websites, possibly including Google, Yahoo, MSN and Bing. Supposedly, the government’s position is that “no website will be blocked without investigation,” but also that websites will be blocked to comply with the court’s rulings.
Why, you ask. Here is how the report in The News explains it:
A citizen, Muhammad Sidiq, filed a writ petition No. 3246/2010 in the LHC, seeking a ban on the websites for publishing blasphemous materials and twisting the facts and figure of Holy Quran. Deputy Attorney General Muhammad Hussain Azad also endorsed the viewpoint of the petitioner and demanded blocking of these websites. Counsel for the petitioner, Latif-ur-Rehman Advocate presented CDs and other evidence in the court, showing that the said websites were publishing sacrilegious material. Later, President High Court Bar Aslam Dhakkar said the court has given a historic decision. He said the legal fraternity would observe a complete strike in Bahawalpur on Wednesday (today) against publication of such material by these websites. He said a meeting would also discuss the situation today.
It is not yet fully clear exactly what will happen because of this ruling, but it is very clear that no matter what happens we are going to keep getting a host of such cases. People will find things on the Internet that they are offended by. While I have never understood why people spend so much time and energy trying to find things that offend them, it is the nature of the Internet that everyone (and I mean, everyone) can find lots of things on it to be offended by. Conspiracy, idioticy, lies, ridicule. Its all there. What you choose to see on the Internet is your choice, not the Internet’s. (Maybe the Honorable Judge Sahib should have booked Mr. Muhammad Sidiq for visiting blasphemous site. Why is his faith so insecure as to be shattered by a website. After all, why is he going around searching for blasphemy!).
It would be too easy, however, to blame the Judge for giving a ‘wrong’ decision. Its too easy for Internet Freedom advocates to seek a reversal of the decision. But the fact of the matter is that the decision is NOT wrong. Under the laws of Pakistan, as written, blasphemy is indeed punishable and such sites should, indeed, be banned. The problem is not the judges or their decisions. The problem is the laws as they are written. And that means that the solutions will not come through the courts, but through society and through legislation. Blasphemy laws have been used nearly exclusively to exclude and to intimidate.
Historically, these blasphemy laws have been used to exclude and intimidate minorities. Now, the exact same tactics are being used to exclude and intimidate speech. The one thing you can be sure of is that we will see more and more of this. And our courts and judges will have no option but to rule as they have been ruling. Because that is what the law demands.
And herein lies the point about why banning the Internet in Pakistan may actually be a good thing.
Intimidation through these laws has never hurt the majority of Pakistanis, and certainly not those who matter in any consequential way. But Internet bans, no matter how temporary, do exactly that. The broader the Internet ban, the deeper the hurt, and the more it matters to those who matter. Maybe it will take repeated bans for us to realize the injustice, the exclusion and the intimidation that is baked into these laws.
The fact of the matter is that whatever inconvenience these Internet bans may cause are inconsequential in comparison to the actual murder and mayhem that is caused to minorities in Pakistan because of the same blasphemy laws. If this inconvenience is the way to awaken to the much greater injustice in these laws, then maybe these Internet bans are a good thing, after all. If, indeed, that were to happen, it would be an inconvenience well worth it!