With the passage of time, cyberspace has become prominent for human rights like freedom of speech and expression. The diverse battleground over what is right and wrong politically, socially and culturally is increasingly shifting into the cloud. But beyond that, unfortunately, the quest for genuine persuasion, activism and engagement is made for difficult amid the rise of disinformation and distant troll armies.
In such an environment, it didn't take too long for Western think-tanks to start measuring what they call “internet freedom" as a marker of how liberal or illiberal is a country towards tolerating online criticism. Some countries look good, others look bad. This leads to a debate, which sometimes morphs into controversy, on how a particular methodology doesn't quite capture realities on the ground and is incapable to adjust for local context.
So it was when a US-based think tank, Freedom House, launched its latest Internet Freedom index last month, and the local authorities didn't take to it. The report, titled “The Crisis of Social Media," suggests that nearly three-fourth of roughly 4 billion Internet users live in countries where people were detained or put behind bars for their social media posts. Pakistan figures prominently among such countries.
For the period between June 2018 and May 2019, Pakistan is cited among those countries that are “not free," especially when it comes to access to and rights on the Internet. Specifically, Pakistan received a score of 26 on the Freedom Index, placing the country at number 9, at the bottom tier of the index, among 65 countries. The bottom five countries on the list are China, Syria, Iran, Cuba and Vietnam.
The report suggested that under the garb of countering hate speech and extremism, the local authorities were harassing citizens and journalists through legal, technical and physical means. Limited internet access in some areas, blocking of websites, arrests and tortures, and disinformation campaigns were cited among the major factors causing a decline in Pakistan's internet freedom.
Perhaps viewing the report as a damning indictment, the telecoms regulator, PTA, came up with a response last week to contest the country's “unfair" portrayal. In a letter to Freedom House, the regulator faults the secondary research undertaken on the basis of news articles, which PTA deems inadequate. Views of PTA and other relevant stakeholders should have been incorporated, the letter reads.
The PTA's pushback is valid on some counts. But on others, it cites adherence to local laws, notably the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (2016), to justify actions such as web monitoring and blocking of unlawful content. The regulator has a tough act to follow – it has to significantly increase broadband penetration but at the same time ensure that online platforms are not becoming counter-productive.
For the country to productively deploy information and communication technologies, Pakistanis need affordable access as well as openness in the cyberspace for critical thinking to take root and take the country forward. In the end, it is expected of the elected representatives, who passed cybercrime laws in the first place, to reassess existing constitutional safeguards for the people's right to free speech.