May Issue 2016
“Nothing can be blocked on the internet 100%” – Farieha Aziz
Farieha Aziz is a co-founder and Director of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights and civil liberties organisation, established in 2012. She served as an amicus curiae (friend of court) in a case filed in the Lahore High Court in 2013, challenging the ban on YouTube, and is currently a petitioner on behalf of Bolo Bhi in a case filed in the Islamabad High Court challenging the government’s censorship on the internet and the powers of the regulator. More recently, she has led the campaign to stop the government of Pakistan from enacting a proposed Cybercrime Bill that will have a detrimental impact on civil liberties — particularly speech and privacy — if passed in its current form.
A former staffer of Newsline, while doing a cover story for the magazine, Farieha inadvertently got caught up in an incident that proved pivotal in driving her focus on the issue of blanket internet censorship by the government. Farieha saw first hand, how a group of citizens, who were holding a press conference at the Karachi Press Club, were labelled blasphemers by the press, and manhandled by a mob for explaining the technology behind Facebook and the demerits of blocking an entire platform. Having had to find an escape route from the frenzied mob herself, she later left the magazine to form Bolo Bhi with a group of like-minded individuals. She has since written extensively on the subject of internet censorship and the government’s arbitrary policies.
Farieha Aziz is the winner of the Best Investigative Report (Business) for 2007-2008 awarded by the All Pakistan Newspaper Society and the People’s Choice Award for Woman of the Year 2016 by the LADIESFUND. In April 2016, she travelled to London to collect the Index on Censorship Award on Free Expression in the Campaign category on behalf of Bolo Bhi for their work on the Cybercrime Bill.
When did you start Bolo Bhi and what was its primary concern?
Since the Facebook ban of 2010, I had closely followed internet censorship in Pakistan and kept in touch with activists who were working on these issues. It was late 2011 when a bunch of us seriously started thinking of establishing an organisation to pursue these issues. This was before the YouTube ban was imposed, by the way. So after a brainstorming session, we put up a website in January 2012 and in October we managed to register Bolo Bhi. I left my jobs (working at Newsline and teaching at a school) to focus on this full time.
While the YouTube ban drew the most attention, especially in the early days of the ban, for us at Bolo Bhi, internet censorship as a whole was our primary concern and we viewed the YouTube ban as an extension of the larger problem. Earlier in 2012, the government had expressed its intent to acquire a national URL filtering firewall — along the lines of what China has in place. Incidentally, in 2012, there was very little clarity in terms of how blocking on the net was executed. Since 2006, various websites have been blocked in Pakistan. So first, we set out to map how the entire process of banning a website on the internet worked. We did this by meeting with public and private stakeholders, and also tried to get a sense of where they stood on the issue of censorship.
What we eventually learnt was: there existed the quite Orwellian IMCEW (Inter-Ministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites), which was constituted in 2006. The IMCEW comprised members of various ministries and a nominee of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Anyway, we found that the IMCEW would issue instructions to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) after reaching a decision — but the process of reaching a decision was murky. The PTA would then issue a directive to the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who blocked the website at their end.
Tell me about Bolo Bhi’s fight against the YouTube ban.
While we were having conversations with a range of public and private stakeholders on internet censorship and the YouTube ban, a petition was filed in the Lahore High Court (LHC) by Bytes for All, a digital rights group, challenging the ban on YouTube. Since we were already in conversation with various communities over the issue of internet censorship, I was appointed as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) to assist in the case. From 2013-2014, I attended hearings, made submissions bringing necessary information and material to the court’s attention.
The initial challenge was really the narrative, which heavily centred on a blasphemous video. The first step was steering it away from what was contentious to acknowledging there were other issues that needed to be addressed. The entire discussion in the LHC began by examining how the said video could be blocked but access to the platform restored.
First it was about making a case for the utility of the platform and how YouTube was being used by Pakistanis: for education, entertainment etc. I prepared briefs for the court explaining the policy and technology perspective: what was possible and what wasn’t, and what were the most feasible options.
Nothing can be blocked on the internet 100% — and this is something subsequently, even the PTA and government have had to admit before the court.
The internet is a voluntary medium. Unlike television, things don’t appear automatically on your screen. There are ways to deal with what does. The bottom line is that no matter how much you try to block any website, a determined person can access what he or she wants to find on the internet. It makes more sense to educate users on how to exercise caution instead, and come to terms with how internet technology functions.
So what really helped lift the ban on YouTube?
The Ministry of Information Technology kept making a case for filters. Then localisation of YouTube came up for discussion. In a letter to the court, Google explained that while it did not block anything on YouTube.com, certain content was restricted based on local law. However, at that time Google was not offering such a service in Pakistan. What was offered were interstitials — warning screens before the offending video — which had already been placed and Bangladesh and Afghanistan went on to lift the ban as a result. But for the government of Pakistan, that was not acceptable. So after filters, they kept pushing for localisation, because they realised that this would give them some degree of control over content.
Since the government kept bringing up the 2012 SC order which said only block the video, not YouTube.com, the LHC instructed the petitioners to seek a clarification of the order.
Google, in January 2015, decided to launch localised versions of YouTube in three countries, including Pakistan. The PTA submitted a response to the SC saying YouTube has been localised and the offending video was now inaccessible, so YouTube should be restored. Interestingly, just days after, PTA issued a directive to ISPs — but not at the behest of the SC — to restore access to YouTube.com. Clearly, just like the ban was an executive decision, so was the unblocking of it.
Who decides what’s offensive?
That is the all-important question. While blasphemous and pornographic content were routinely used as excuses to block a lot of other political content, now terrorist content online is being used as an excuse to acquire these powers.
In December 2014, we filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court, challenging the IMCEW’s and PTA’s powers to block content online on the grounds they were exercising their powers arbitrarily and derived no authority to do so by law.
In January 2015, the government was questioned during hearings, where the IMCEW derived its powers to issue directives. In March 2015, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif disbanded the IMCEW because the government was unable to prove before the court that it had any legal standing. They then started building an argument for the PTA — that the PTA was responsible for content management online. The question of the PTA’s powers still has to be settled in court.
The court’s initial Stay Order barred the IMCEW and PTA from issuing any directives before first coming to court. In our third hearing, an official of the IT Ministry pleaded that the terrorist content online posed such a danger that the court must allow action to be taken. Following that hearing, the judge modified the order to the extent that if based on a complaint, something had to be blocked, PTA would have to provide the court with a list and reasoning for why it was blocked. The IT ministry comprises a bunch of great spin doctors. They publicly misrepresented those orders and instructions issued to them by the court to suit their motives.
Earlier in 2015, the modified court order was being used to deflect responsibility for the YouTube ban. The IT minister, on a popular prime time talk show, was questioned about the duplicity of not taking action against terrorist content, yet keeping YouTube blocked. Her response was: the court had restricted the government or the PTA from acting. In a news report, a PTA operative, in response to the presence of Daesh’s website in Pakistan, also maintained that the court had barred the PTA from acting.
Content management powers for the PTA have been built into the Cybercrime Bill and the Telecom Policy 2015 by the government. It seems to be driven by a mindset of, ‘if we don’t already have the powers, we’ll just write them into law.’ We have also challenged that section of the telecom policy in our case before the IHC.
Currently, there is no power vested in either the IMCEW or the PTA to do what they do, by the law. But that doesn’t mean content management powers should be written into law either. The first is purely a legal argument, the second a matter of policy.
Are you saying the Cybercrime Bill, in its current form, can be used to censor?
Absolutely. Not only will it be used to censor or block information and speech, but the Cybercrime Bill also criminalises many forms of speech and there is considerable ambiguity in terms of how the powers will be exercised.
Section 34 is a copy/paste of Article 19 and the power to interpret the exclusion clauses has been given to the PTA. Section 18 of the bill says if you transmit anything that is “false” or “likely to harm the reputation of a person,” it’s punishable by a three-year prison term and the PTA will be empowered to have it removed. Social media is used as an alternate platform to blow the whistle on a lot of unreported matters or is used to hold those in power accountable. This will be a tool in the hands of those who want one view to prevail or prevent news of wrongdoing to reach the public.
What is Bolo Bhi currently working on?
Recently we ran an online campaign in collaboration with the Women’s Action Forum to raise awareness on acid attacks in Pakistan. We’re also reviewing other laws and acts of violence against women, while highlighting the stories of those who have overcome. This we’ve done through a series of interviews through our HERStory platform which documents the personal stories of women’s rights activists.
The Cybercrime Bill was just passed this April by the National Assembly, so now all eyes are set on the Senate. We’re still in the middle of our IHC case, and keeping an eye on where the SC case is heading, with the PTA issuing outlandish directives such as the blocking of over 400,000 URLs!
We are also working on creating awareness on digital safety through sessions at schools and universities, literature festivals, etc. A lot of our online presence has to do with how secure we keep ourselves by being aware of the tools that are available, using them and knowing what do in the event something happens.
This article was first published in Newsline’s May 2016 issue.
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.