The big news this week in the business world is the decision by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the Google antitrust investigations. Holding that Google was not harming consumers in anyway, the FTC did not press ahead with a complaint against Google. This is a significant victory for Google but there is a loud chorus of voices against this decision, including by Microsoft’s general counsel who says that the FTC missed a golden opportunity to set things straight in terms of Google’s control over the market.
The only reason I bring it up is to inform the reader of where the debate is at in terms of cyber space, internet controls and the law in the developed world. The world is moving towards a free flow of information and ideas where even the subtlest of the moves to control information or censorship is questioned and thoroughly investigated. Could there be a greater contrast to this in our country of poor enslaved 180 million people who are deprived of the full freedom of the internet in the name of selective morality, religious sentiments and state’s inability to divorce itself from operating as the regulator of vice and virtue?
The government’s flip-flop last week over the YouTube ban has once again exposed the misplaced priorities and a profound lack of logical and rational decision making on its part. YouTube ban is an idiocy of the highest order. Would the banning of YouTube remove the blasphemous video from the website? Or do we feel we can strong arm the world into agreeing to our restrictions on freedom of speech? Let us call a spade a spade. The YouTube ban is indicative of an ostrich mentality, of burying one’s head in sand in response to danger.
Blanket bans on online internet tools such as YouTube have a disastrous impact on the ability of Pakistani students, teachers, businesspersons and other professionals using such tools for educational, religious, commercial or entertainment purposes. In the information age, such a ban is tantamount and analogous to taking away a writer’s pen with which a writer such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in the 19th century famously countered Sir William Muir’s untruths about the Holy Prophet (PBUH). While many countries — Muslim and Non-Muslim — including Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, India, Maldives etc have banned the URLs to the objectionable film, only Pakistan persists with a blanket ban on YouTube to the detriment of its citizens. In any event, the government has the ability to ban specific URLs instead of placing blanket bans but it chooses instead to ban the whole tool as it were because under the guise of religious sentiment, it seeks actually to control what Pakistanis watching on the internet.
Given the conservative nature of Pakistani society, such bans can lead to frustration, violence and chaos amongst the youth of the country, which now forms the majority of its citizens. The state has no business deciding moral questions for its citizens. No state, modern or ancient, secular or religious, has successfully managed to exercise such thought control on its citizens and any such attempt at moral policing, without exception, has been an exercise in futility. To state it more bluntly that what a person views on his or her computer is none of the state’s business and the state should not demean itself by attempting to control personal choices of individuals. What is more is that it violates the Supreme Court’s own pronouncement in Hasba Bill judgment, which simply put makes state’s enforcement of religious matters outside of Zakat unconstitutional.
This abject surrender to narrow-minded fanatics by this mighty state of ours is going to hurt us badly for decades to come as we fall behind the rest of the world on every conceivable indicator. A country that was once a leader in the developing world is now compared to Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of human development, literacy, healthcare and security. The internet is the great leveler. Free flow of information may still help this nation of illiterates catch up. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen because the government that has been inflicted upon us does not have the moral fibre to put its foot down and tell the Qadris and Saeeds to take a hike. One of the rare upstanding Pakistani politicians — Governor of Punsjab Shaheed Salmaan Taseer — was abandoned by this government. Not that betrayal is a word unknown to the Pakistan People’s Party. In 1974, it folded to extremists when they were much weaker than they are now. Now the present government is bartering our future away by curbing the average Pakistani’s access to knowledge and information.
The world now exists in a large part in the cyber space. Most of our economic transactions take place online. People now exist online and their online sphere is much larger than their offline influence in the world. The next great wars will be the wars of ideas and domination of the marketplace of ideas, which is again — you guessed it — online. Pakistan’s leaders have already shot this country in the foot on that count.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Jinnah; Myth and Reality.
He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address firstname.lastname@example.org