Hint to shut down social media spells trouble for internet freedom in Pakistan

pta-social-media-ban
Illustration by @FarhanJanjua

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) chairman General (retired) Amir Azeem Bajwa has reportedly recommended to the government to shut down social media in the country as the only viable solution to stop blasphemy on the internet and come up with own social networks like China and Russia in case the ‘technical capabilities’ of the body cannot be enhanced.

The military — army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the military’s public relations wing Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) have been preparing the country for this through their rhetoric of “5th generation warfare” which they repeatedly claimed threatened the national security. It’s not a surprise that the internet is what made the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party what it is today. The internet did not just empower them. It is also through the internet that the country has seen powerful dissenting voices including bloggers/artists critical of the state like Ahmad Waqass Goraya, Salman Haider, human rights defenders such as Gulalai Ismail, movements for the sexual minorities and intersectional discourse such as Queer Pakistan, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and activism for rights of Baloch — all of which has been labelled anti-national, RAW funded and/or “blasphemous” by the state.

amir-azeem-bajwa
The chief of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is a retired army General Amir Azeem Bajwa

Somehow, this move hasn’t come as a shock for me. The military has not learnt its lessons from the past and they are oblivious to the realities and believe that they can control the flow of information in the age of internet as they used to in the country’s martial law history. In fact I’ve been talking about this warning that this was coming. In this article I will explain what the state has already done to curb the internet freedom in the country, what its ambitious plans entail and what would be the consequences.

What has already been done

The PTA chairman in his briefing to the standing committee a little over a week ago bragged about his authority’s achievements.

850,000 ‘porn’ websites blocked

It’s worth noting here that there’s no transparency and oversight in the process of blocking these websites. The Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 allows the PTA to block ‘vulgar’ and ‘blasphemous’ websites but it is not clear how the authority decides to block content. As a result, it’s anybody’s guess if PTA curbed on genuine dissenting voices in guise of shutting down porn, blasphemy and ‘treason’.

11 or ‘11,000’ VPNs blocked

Yes, let that sync in. The PTA chairman also bragged about this achievement of his authority. He said PTA has blocked the access to 11 major VPN providers (11,000 in some media reports. Huh?).

Ordered brand new ‘Web Monitoring System’ to potentially hack your conversations

Reportedly, PTA signed an agreement with US-based Sandvine Corporation to develop a so called Web Monitoring System through which it says it wants to monitor ‘grey traffic’ including one that takes place through communication apps. The report also said they intend to monitor even the encrypted chats and voice communications. As is the case with most messaging apps, the chats are supposed to be end-to-end encrypted which means not even the state agencies are supposed to read/listen to them unless they decrypt them — I’m not saying the state agencies don’t have the capacity to decrypt the conversation, just that they can’t with every message. So what do they plan on doing then? You guessed it, hacking! The only way the government, any government can ‘monitor’ and snoop through the messages is if they manage to hack your chats in which case they are no longer end-to-end encrypted. And it doesn’t help knowing that Sandvine Corporation is the same company that is contracted by Israeli intelligence and was behind the notorious spy bug in WhatsApp.

One disclaimer though: The authorities may not be able to read/listen to your end-to-end encrypted chats, they still can get their hands on the meta data and other indicators to pinpoint who is talking to who and for how long.

Dissent already curbed

Most websites belonging to alternative and minority voices including Ahmadiyya community’s websites, satire website Khabaristan Times, queer media QueerPK.com, Baloch portals, pro PTM and minority rights pages, pages critical of government have already been blocked in the country.

Crackdown on journos/activists and political leaders ongoing

If you don’t know what I’m saying, here’s a quick recap:

– Pro-military trolls-backed attacks on journalists with #ArrestAntiPakJournalists campaign

– Government sanctioned ‘campaign’ #JournalismNotAgenda to ‘educate’ journalists and to counter/mock global pro-press freedom campaign #JournalismNotACrime. Yes, they actually decided to mock global campaign for press freedom.

– Pakistan ranks 142 out of 180 on Reporters without Borders’ Global Freedom Index

– Pakistan ranks 73 out of 100 on Freedom House’s Internet freedom index and is literally labeled ‘not free’

– Internet was shut down on the day of ex-FATA elections, days before Imran Khan’s US visit and he lied through his teeth

I know right! The irony is lost on our handsome Prime Minister who despite all these indicators had to audacity to undermine Pakistan’s struggle for independent journalism by mocking the journos and freedom activists his counterpart Donald Trump style.

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Illustration by @FarhanJanjua

What PTA wants to do now?

The PTA chairman has recommended to block all social media networks in the country along the lines of how it is in the Arab gulf — what benchmarks and role models — and make our own social networks like China has if the government cannot enhance ‘technical capabilities’ of the authority. Yes, let that sync in too. Although, the PTA chief issued a clarification saying that he’s being misquoted by the media and that he only used this as an ‘example’ that this was to happen if the authority’s ‘technical capabilities’ were not enhanced. In what world would shutting down the social media and putting in all the resources to build your own social networks be more viable than enhancing your technical capabilities? And what are these technical capabilities any way?

How will internet look like once they’re done with it

Without fear-mongering, I’m gonna try to paint the picture of what it will be like as accurately as possible. So here goes:

No more Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat

Imagine a world where you are no longer able to use these services to stay connected with your networks or whatever you use these for. Please note though, I’m not against not using Facebook services because of their shitty privacy record but it has to be your (user’s) choice, not the government’s.

End of Twitter-based breaking news/citizen journalism

Imagine the world without Twitter. One tweet becomes a breaking news and thus allowing people to report social ills, share their stories such as #MeToo and all other things it is used to give voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless.

No more YouTubing

Right now, the censored/banned journalists use the power of internet to continue speaking. But without YouTube, there’s nothing. Not to mention tons of entertainment and education one consumes through the video streaming service.

End of secure messaging

The biggest bummer of them all would be the end of secure way of messaging people. Be it using apps offering WhatsApp (disclaimer: owned by Facebook), Wire, Telegram (caution: not end-to-end encrypted by default), iMessage (end-to-end encrypted only iMessage to iMessage) or Signal.

Endless corruption trying to build own social network

We all know how wrong people will be rewarded with contracts in creating own chat apps and social networks. Especially with this government that tends to reward jingoistic wrong numbers like renowned cyber troll Farhan Virk and menninist mumbojumbo TV presenter Waqar Zaka — both of them recently pitched to Science Minister Fawad Chaudhry as to how they have all the resources in building Pakistan’s own bitcoin to rid the country of its own debts and Fawad Chaudhry actually entertainment and met them. Imagine someone like them developing these apps. Regardless of how much these tech experts and fancy consultants claim of the resources they have, they will NOT be able to build an app as secure without transparency and data protection regulations and due judicial process it needs. Pakistan just does not have it.

Anyone from law enforcement will be watching your messages, listening to calls because oh of course, national security and blasphemy

Imagine a social network without legally guaranteed data protection, secure hosting of data, end-to-end encryption and judicial process, your chat data including any nudes you may send (reminder: unsolicited nudes sending is a sex offence, sext only with consent) is out there for anyone and everyone in the law enforcement to see.

Law enforcement can delete your accounts

Just like a bad IT support that says one fine day all your data just got deleted because of power outage, same can be the fate of your precious data and you will be told something like “just create a new one”.

End of digital media businesses/freelancing export

Pakistan has a vibrant freelance and IT export industry that includes solution providers that provide social media based solutions including digital media marketing, website designing, software development and more. Many freelancers, entrepreneurs small and even big digital agencies in Pakistan rely on their domestic as well as international clients to bring the much needed foreign exchange in the country. All of that, gone. Poof.

My advice

I would like to end with my advice to the government and state institution that they should stop making themselves an international embarrassment. The retired military people have to accept the fact that it’s not the 70s anymore when they controlled everything and they just cannot control the internet like that.
If they believe the “5th generation warfare” against Pakistan is real, they should engage and defend the country by engaging in the same war against the enemy, not its own people. What kind of fight it would be to just shut down everything and run away from it?

Pakistan just does not have that kind of infrastructure where they can host such sensitive data in a secure and private manner. The governments controlling flow of information will never work. Especially not in the world we are now used to… the world with the internet.

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