In the recent past, bloggers and new media users in Pakistan have been very concerned about a request for proposals floated in the newspapers by the National ICT Research and Development Fund inviting bids from local and international tech companies to help develop a massive system of URL blocking, with the capability of censoring 50 million website addresses.
After a the concerns raised in the new media as well as by international organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Access Now, and successful lobbying by local parliamentarians, the government relented on March 19. The Ministry of Information Technology confirmed to Member of National Assembly Bushra Gohar that plans for the Internet URL filtering and blocking system had been withdrawn.
The law states that the regulator must act "in an open, equitable, non-discriminatory, consistent, and transparent manner," and that "the persons affected by its decisions or determinations are given a due notice thereof and provided with an opportunity of being heard"
This was however just the start of the long fight for internet freedom and online rights in Pakistan. The citizens accept that the government must block websites that violate the law, but they cannot accept ad hoc banning of a large number of websites that comply with the law.
For example, hometownshoes.com was banned for several weeks before P@sha (the All Pakistan Software Association) lobbied via their contacts in the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority for its subsequent unblocking. Sites like this and many others have faced the chagrin at times errors of a system that has hardly any public oversight, no clear identified goals and a process which is at best up till now been inaccessible for redress.
But as of last week, this is no longer the case. Seven of us from the civil society got together and filed a constitutional petition for internet rights here in the Karachi High Court through our advocate Haider Waheed. The court and its honourable judges Justice Maqbool Baqar and Justice Shafi Siddiqui have accepted the case and granted an interim stay order that states:
There are more than 6 million Pakistanis on Facebook, 3 million on Twitter and as many as 1.7 million Pakistani blogs have been registered on Blogspot
"Notice to the respondents as well as learned DAG for 07-05-12, to be issued instantly and through all possible modes, till then the respondents shall conduct themselves strictly in accordance with law and in case, they initiate any action, such shall be done in accordance with relevant provisions of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Act, 1996."
That basically means that no website can be blocked without following the rules for blockage already set up by the PTA in its 1996 law, which states that the regulator acts "in an open, equitable, non-discriminatory, consistent, and transparent manner," and that "the persons affected by its decisions or determinations are given a due notice thereof and provided with an opportunity of being heard". This is not a small victory for online rights in this country but is definitely the only cause for blogs and internet forums to now have the same legal status as print and broadcast media.
The United Nations has already said that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation and against international law
Why are such rights important? The internet is a huge store of knowledge and is more so in use now in every day lives of Pakistanis then ever before. About 20 million people in the country use the Internet. There are more than 6 million of us on Facebook, 3 million on Twitter and as many as 1.7 million Pakistani blogs have been registered on Blogspot. Not only do all these people have rights as citizens of Pakistan for access to the Internet, but also have the right to decide for themselves what information they wish to receive through it - as long as it is within the boundaries set by the PTA already.
The United Nations has already deemed in a report that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation and against international law, and it would bode pretty badly for us to violate any more human rights than we already do.
Will this lead to the PTA developing a constitutionally compliant process of blocking websites they deem offensive? It probably will. What is important is that this interim stay order will at least for the time being mean that the PTA will operate within its constitutional and legal boundaries and will grant a fair hearing to sites which it deems blockable.
In a country where the due process of law is hardly ever seen to be in operation, this might just lead to the beginning of many more such petitions to come from the citizens of this country for their civil rights and liberties. Those of us who have openly questioned the need for the restoration of a just judiciary can also now find a reason to satisfy their questions. A judiciary which stands by the rights of the public is perhaps the most important thing needed in the chaotic times we live in. The rule of law must reign supreme, whether it is online or offline.