Nowhere is free

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again expecting different results. There is, as yet, little evidence that restricting internet services to censor or disrupt anything going on online does anything to slow down its momentum. If anything, there is some to the contrary, but there is plenty of evidence of the damage this does to the country’s digital economy, its global reputation, and the lives of its people in general. This past Sunday (January 7) marked at least the third time that internet service disruptions have coincided with some virtual event. Access to several social media platforms was disrupted throughout the country ahead of a PTI virtual fundraising telethon and manifesto launch. The incident bore all the hallmarks of what happened last month when the PTI held a virtual jalsa, with access to social media sites and even Gmail being disrupted ahead of the digital gathering. Most of those trying to access social media on January 7 were likely not even aware such an event was going on, but they would have probably been made aware of the latter after being unable to use certain sites. Much the same can be said of the results of last month’s disruption. Those running the show could not have picked a more self-defeating approach and appear to be committed to doing the same thing, less than a month apart, while expecting different results.

The digital realm has emerged as somewhat of a haven in Pakistan in recent years. It is a place where people are not as encumbered by the absurd red tape, unreliable infrastructure, and unreasonable restrictions there are in the physical world. Unsurprisingly, the internet has been one of the sources of optimism in the otherwise gloomy lives of most Pakistanis over the past few years, providing us with the freedom and reliability we lack in the physical realm and showing what this country can do when not dragged down by those leading it. It has served as a platform for budding entrepreneurs and new kinds of businesses and services, a source of employment for the burgeoning freelancer economy, and a place where people are comparatively free to be themselves and engage others with shared interests. This is partly why we have a caretaker IT minister reportedly talking about taking the country’s IT exports from $2.6 billion to $10 billion in the next three years. While this aim might be a bit premature, a country that has around 130 million broadband subscribers, more than the population of most countries, and reportedly produces an estimated 20,000 IT graduates and engineers annually can at least dream.

Sadly, it would appear that the kind of restrictions and inane regulations that have put a damper on Pakistanis in the physical world look set to extend their cumbersome tentacles into the digital one. If such disruptions keep happening every month, the IT minister’s plans will truly never amount to more than a dream. The injustice of the whole scenario is heightened by the fact that ordinary, hardworking, creative Pakistanis appear to be paying the price for a problem they did not create. If the disruptions of recent months are indeed deliberate digital clampdowns, it would seem those who cannot see beyond their myopic worldview have made yet another problem for themselves. Solving it apparently requires making it everybody else’s problem too.

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