Disinfecting the internet

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Since the dawn of the global internet with free public access in the 1990’s, governments have with varying degrees of success attempted to regulate or censor online content. Today, there are governments such as China that try to limit the perceived threat from the freedom of speech that the internet allows by creating its own clone of the net, and firewalling the rest of the cyber world. This is not febrile paranoia, there are very real threats presented to national security as exemplified by the many known hacks of government data which then arrives in the public domain. Pornography found a niche on the ‘Net very early and has proliferated into a multi-billion dollar business. The creation and dispersal of child pornography is driven entirely by the ‘Net. Extremist and terrorist groups have used it with considerable success and presumably continue to do so. Criminal groups populate the so-called ‘Dark Net’ using it to plan crime and move money around. Tons of drugs are trafficked by the month. The list is endless and endlessly evolving as is the ‘Net itself, and now Pakistan has announced that it is to wash its cyber-face and crack down on those involved in propagating extremist material and posting hate speech on social media platforms.

There is no doubt that there is corrosive material on the ‘Net and Pakistan already blocks access to tens of thousands of sites that host pornography. Unfortunately for the government netizens have a back door to blocked sites via Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s) which are downloaded and installed in seconds, and allow the extension of a private network across a public network, enabling users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network. They have the added advantage of creating a spoof IP address and location, making an individual user if not actually invisible then very hard to spot. Google stats indicate that pornography is one of the leading searches by number in Pakistan. Uncounted millions already use this deception, and this is the biggest rock in the road for the government’s new proposals.

The Federal Information Minister (IM) says that a mechanism has been developed that is going to control every kind of ‘abhorrent literature’ and hate speeches and that such a move is necessary as digital media is ‘rapidly replacing more formal forms of media.’ It is. There have already been arrests says the IM, mainly for making threats and issuing fatwas on social media platforms, and more may be expected. This is all well and good and we can do nothing but support the government in this respect but the lessons of history indicate that any success is likely to be short-lived.

The VPN’s were created as a direct response to regulation and censorship, and their almost immediate success is down to the fact that they are easy and free in their basic versions or cheap if paid for. There is every reason to expect that there will already be applications in development that are designed to counter or circumvent whatever mechanism the government has devised to take down hate speech. Those efforts are going to be successful if they are not already – things move fast in cyberspace. The government is going to fail, as have other governments in even more autocratic regimes than Pakistan. Attempts at control of content have transpired to be costly in terms of money and human resources, and arguably unsustainable even in the developed world where ‘Net regulation is on the agenda because of images of self-harm that are alleged to have been a factor in at least one childhood suicide. Ultimately it is going to have to be the ‘Net providers to do the policing as they have both money and resources, perhaps in Pakistan in a public-private partnership, but hate speech is here to stay and the government is in cloud-cuckoo land if it thinks it can turn a tide that is in large part self-sustaining.