Don’t Block the Blog

Speaking up Against Internet Censorship, the world over

March 25, 2006

Chock-a-Blog? No more

Mehreen
Written by: Mehreen Zahra-Malik
Publihsed in: The Friday Times

The government’s enthusiasm to block sites hosting the blasphemous cartoons has led to the demise of blogging in Pakistan

The Danish cartoon controversy has claimed yet another victim here: Pakistani bloggers. This is how it goes.

On February 27, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) directed all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block a dozen websites of various origins on which Prophet Muhammad?s (pbuh) controversial caricatures were either reproduced or which had invited the media to reproduce the cartoons. One of the sites PTA declared ?offensive? and subsequently blocked was being hosted on the domain of Google Inc?s international blogging service, www.blogspot.com. This domain hosts more than four million other blogs (web journals) and websites. While aiming to block a few blogs, PTA has ended up blocking access to thousands of other blogs and websites on the host.

Immediately after PTA?s notification, Reporters Without Borders, an international media NGO monitoring freedom of speech, issued a statement declaring PTA?s action ?unacceptable?. ?We believe the decision to ban a website should only, if ever, be taken by a judge, at the end of a fair trial,? said the RWB spokesperson.

Not surprisingly, two days after PTA?s notification, on March 2, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the government to block Internet sites displaying blasphemous cartoons. The SC also demanded to know why these sites had not been blocked earlier. The Federal Government, Ministry of Telecommunication, Pakistan Electronic Media and Regulatory Authority, PTA, Yahoo Inc. USA and I&I Co were cited as respondents in the two petitions filed against the posting of blasphemous cartoons on various websites.

In its order, the SC specifically asked the Attorney General of Pakistan, Makhdoom Ali Khan, to explore legal ways to block ?objectionable material? on websites. ?We will not accept any excuse or technical objections to this issue because it concerns the sentiments of the entire Muslim ummah,? Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry said.

IT experts say the PTA-imposed ?blanket ban? only reveals the Authority?s inefficiency and the utter lack of thought that goes into official decision-making. ?Instead of blocking only those URLs which depicted the cartoons, PTA has blocked the host. This means that an entire domain has been put off limits,? an IT expert working for a Lahore-based ISP told TFT.

?This is the easier and quicker way to get things done. But PTA should have blocked specific URLs, not the hosts . Now they have ended up blocking thousands of sites, which also include the domain that hosted the blogs that can no morebe accessed for viewing or authoring in Pakistan,? he added.

Several bemused observers wonder why PTA would block a dozen websites when the cartoons are available on thousands of others. ?If Pakistan wants to block every such site, it might have to block big names like Wikipedia, search engines like Google and Yahoo! and even proxy servers. This would mean cutting Pakistan off from the www traffic,? said one expert.

?At this point, the print and electronic media should first exert pressure on the government to lift the ban on Blogspot.com and then push for reforming PTA. The ISPs, by listening to PTA and not protecting the rights of internet users on whom their businesses actually depend, have set a very dangerous precedent,? he added.

A Pakistani group called ?Pakistani Bloggers & Friends? has launched an online campaign, ?Don?t Block the Blog!? to protest the PTA blockade. The forerunners of this campaign are Dr Awab Alvi, an orthodontist in Karachi, and Omer Alvie, a political humorist based in Dubai.

Ironically, says Alvi, he has used his own blog to protest the publishing of the blasphemous cartoons. Blogger Alvie also says blocking Blogspot.com, aimed only at a few objectionable sites, has ended up hurting ?hundreds of other blogs that were actually protesting (in the most civil and logical way) the printing of the controversial cartoons.?

?The ban?s a horrendous overreaction,? says another member of the ?Don?t Block the Blog!? movement. ?Blocking Blogspot.com is akin to banning all newspapers in a country simply because one classified advertisement in one newspaper out of millions carried something ?objectionable?. It?s illogical,? she added.

The group badly hit by the blockade is Pakistani bloggers who express their views and publish their creative work (poems, stories, photographs etc) through Blogspot.com and other blogging services. One blogger describes the experience as ?somewhere between writing a column and talk radio?. Another says ?It?s genuinely new and harnesses the web?s real genius by empowering anyone to do what only a few could pull off in the past. In that sense, blogging is the first journalistic model that actually harnesses rather than merely exploits the true democratic nature of the web.?

Rather than just being used for self-expression, as an emerging tool, blogging is becoming a tool of knowledge-sharing and management, customer service, interactive journalism, self-marketing, campaigning/social reform and community building.

?You can?t just ban all blogs without considering the implications for bloggers,? says one incensed college student. ?Blogspot.com created a media revolution. Here is a platform where ideas are evaluated on merit, not on source of origin; where significant thoughts or posts receive multiple links and spread across the blogosphere. On blogs, the one-sided perspectives of most media agents are replaced by passionate debates exploring virtually every facet of an idea or concept. The best thing about such platforms is that discussions and interactions happen in real time. Blocking Blogspot.com has disrupted all these processes,? she added.

A student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) says he can still access blocked blogs through ?anonymisers?, proxy sites that allow users to surf websites without giving away their country of origin. ?It is possible to access Blogspot and those who know how to do it are doing it; the ban holds little relevance for them,? he told TFT. ?What?s important, however, is that this blockade is an encroachment on basic rights,? he added.

A professor of mass communication at a private university says the blockade of Blogspot.com reminds her of the press under Ziaul Haq when the papers had to go to the censors every evening and white spaces were published where stories were meant to be. ?Back then, after it became clear that things were unlikely to change and every ?exclusive? would just be wasted time, reporters stopped filing stories that they knew would be censored. That took the edge off,? she told TFT. ?Here is another attempt to turn into subjects people who want to express their opinions.?

Across in Europe, things happen differently. Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds resigned following a controversy about Freivalds? involvement in closing down the website of Swedish rightwing party Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats) on which the Danish cartoons were reproduced.

The site was reportedly contacted by a top foreign ministry official who ordered that it be shut down for security reasons. Freivalds initially denied knowing about the official?s actions but later admitted that he had acted after consulting with her. The official himself told the Swedish attorney-general investigating the closure that he had spoken to Freivalds about the issue and that the minister had claimed the move was vital to ?protect Swedish interests?. In Sweden, it is forbidden by law to interfere with what is written in newspapers and on the Internet.

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