Almost everyone knows that YouTube has been banned in Pakistan for sometime now. We all know the reasons also. Simply put, some person outside out boundary decided to make a movie, not even a movie actually, but a nonsense video in which the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was ridiculed and portrayed. When this video got listed on YouTube, we (muslims, and especially Pakistan) took offense. YouTube was then blocked upon Prime Minister’s orders and as per IMCEW (read below on them) meeting (document in this regard was produced in court) [Thanks to Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi for correcting me on this]
Some lawyer in Lahore who wanted to be a champion and the gatekeeper of Islam for all of us, told the court that this video has to go. Hence the ban (since we really can’t block that video).
The issue at hand is not the video per se (that will forever remain). No right person in Pakistan would challenge that, unless they want to be slapped with being blasphemous and the ill-justice served by the current blasphemy laws. As a citizen of this country my issue is with process, accountability and oversight. We will come back to YouTube and my issues in a minute.
Many people may or may not know, that Pakistan essentially has two exit points as far as the Internet is concerned. One is PTCL and the other TransWorld. Both these operators connect Pakistan to the Internet (and with it to the world) via submarine cables.
What is interesting, under the guise of National Security, both these submarine cables have taps. A tap in the networking field is defined as a duplicate copy. Before the traffic from Pakistan can exit (or enter), a fiber tap is provided to the Intelligence Agencies (read: ISI) with unrestricted access to all the information that flows in between these pipes of ours. Every website you visit, every email you download, every chat message you type online, every Google search, every video you watch, everything is tapped. The government taps this all and more.
No one in their right mind within PTCL or TransWorld wants to talk about the tap. No one. Believe me, I have tried. Talking about the tap means losing your job and getting into trouble. No one knows where exactly the tap from the submarine cable is going. No one is allowed to ask. Everyone is subservient to the order. No one is asking!
The provision for the tap is made into the license as granted by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (or PTA). So almost every provider has to comply with this tap (or lawful intercept as it is called in the professional circles).
We, the citizens are being subjugated with respect to how we use the internet, what we view, and above all have no say (it seems) as to how we are monitored. The State is ever watching.
The problem’s root lies in the Armed Forces. There seems to be a state of constant warfare in the mindset of the people who are from the Armed Forces. That is true everywhere around the world. We are no exceptions. But to use this excuse or ruse to unconditionally invade our privacy and disobey the laws, is no excuse either.
Some pertinent questions as citizens of this country must all ask:
- Who has access to these taps? Which organization(s) specifically?
- How is the data collected, stored, used and shared?
- What is the legal cover for such taps?
- Is there a law or process by which these taps are authorized?
- Is there a court order or summon or warrant by which such taps are initiated? Lawful Intercepts worldwide have a judicial process by which a digital remand is provided for and that too for a limited period.
- What are the safeguards to ensure that information / insight obtained from tapping is not abused?
- Who exactly do we report to? or seek answers from?
- Who exactly sits on the bench (proverbially speaking) or on the committees who have assumed the self-appointed role of being the country’s gatekeepers?
- What is the process by which these people are selected?
- Is this process subject to any parliamentary committee review?
- Is there any open debate or public access to such a process?
- Is there an oversight committee?
- Is there a process for accountability to root out misuse, corruption or wrongful use of the information gained?
These questions should bother everyone! To give an analogous example, you’d be pretty pissed if there were cameras installed in your home and you do not know who exactly is watching you? why they are watching you? Under what authority they are watching you? and for how long they will keep watching you? If such an example riles up your blood, then why should it be so different when it comes to the Internet?
The YouTube block and the subsequent blocking of 1,000s of URLs (websites) is implemented on a daily basis, by an email from Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to PTCL and Transworld.
For starters, the number of URLs that are blocked, is classified. The number of websites that are blocked is classified. If you tried to ask PTA for a copy of these blocked links, you would not be provided by one. I know of someone who can provide me the complete list, but doing so would seriously jeopardize that person’s career and a lot of questions would be asked. In short, we’d be kicking the hornet’s nest!
Coming back to the YouTube block and blocking of other websites. Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) is committee that essentially somehow convenes and makes a list of websites that are deemed harmful to sanctity and sovereignty of Pakistan and/or Islam. If it were up to the people in the armed forces, especially ISI, they would like to have mind-control over each and every citizen in Pakistan. The intelligence agencies would like nothing better than complete submission and conformity. From my personal interaction and those of close associates who have had contact with the such gatekeepers, there is no doubt (in my mind at least) that a delusional atmosphere exists in such organizations. The constant state-of-alert with India and the cyber-warfare with India and the cyber-warfare with US, Israel, and other nations. If any above-average with a high-IQ were to listen and see these men (and women), you would instantly classify them as delusional.
Paranoia? Absolutely, nothing short!
If you somehow do not want to believe that, that’s okay. Feel free to disagree, but I wouldn’t post anything so serious on my blog without having some basis for saying so.
Coming back to IMCEW, more questions that need to be asked:
- Who are these people (names, designations)
- How are they elected?
- Who decided that such would be the mix of representation?
- Where are the minutes of such a committee being made? Why are they not public?
- Where are the minutes of the meeting when the IMCEW meets up?
- What is the submission process or flagging process for a website or a URL to be considered an agenda item in a IMCEW meeting?
- How is the URL/website block order given? Is it debated? Is it voted? How much time is allocated to discussing each URL that is to be blocked?
- Is there any representation from the civilian sector? or public at large?
- What is the process of getting a URL removed from this list?
- Where can one submit a support ticket and request for removal? Or email or call someone up to have the removal reconsideration looked at?
- What are the broad strokes of the IMCEW’s day to day operations? Where can one read such guidelines from?
- What measures are put into play to ensure that there is no bias and/or political suppression of information?
- Is the IMCEW accountable to any Senate and/or Parliamentary review committee?
- Is there an oversight body that ensures IMCEW’s day to day operations?
All these questions are not being answered by the government. It would be conniving of us not to keep the government in check, especially the intelligence agencies and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Six years or so ago, our Internet was a good thing. There were plenty of DSL operators around. Services were up to par. Websites worked, etc. Now, everything has gone from good to bad and is heading for worse.
Want to know the official reasoning of the taps? Grey Traffic monitoring? PTA in collusion with ISI has literally made an ass out of the whole nation by justifying the taps with the grey telephone economy. If we really want to stop the grey traffic, simply make our official rates equal to the rates of the grey traffic, detune the whole situation so that there remains no ground for grey traffic operators to terminate call.
The incompetent people (and believe me they are incompetent!) have this self-induced ego that comes from the power of their seat. That somehow they know what is best for us and how we (the general masses) ought to behave and live. This is simply not acceptable. Your civil rights are being eroded and you have every right to reclaim them. To question them and above all, to change them.