Wikipedia ban – 05 Feb 2023

It will not be an understatement to say that as a state Pakistan has a special fondness for banning things: websites, publications, events, films. In its latest attempt at banning/blocking a website, the country has chosen to deny all access to the world’s largest free encyclopaedia – Wikipedia – arguably one of the most visited websites for everything from random curiosity searches to a deeper dive into a diverse set of subjects. All this has happened quite suddenly. On February 1, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) informed Wikipedia that its services had been degraded for 48 hours as the website was unable to comply with the PTA’s requests of ‘blocking/removing ‘sacrilegious’ content’. The authority also clarified in a tweet that the website was given the opportunity of being heard and that Wikipedia had failed to comply.

Beyond any and all debate on the merits and demerits of banning a whole website is the startling realization we must contend with: the PTA seems woefully unaware that Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced website – meaning if they wanted something edited all they had to do was edit the information. Is it not time our decision-makers understood the workings of the internet and the concept of the world being a global village. Wikipedia has users from across the world, and it is a possibility that some may misuse it. But someone’s wrongdoing resulting in a collective punishment for the 220 million people of Pakistan seems odd. From students, to researchers, to healthcare professionals, there are many who use the site to verify facts and other related information. Its centralized database is useful for many. Blocking the website simply adds one more disadvantage (to an already long list) in the lot of Pakistani students and in fact all citizens who wish to use it for fact-checking.

Past bans on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube showed how counterproductive such actions are. Those who depended on the sites to earn a living were badly affected while those who wanted to spread hatred or libel found other outlets. The PTA argues that the laws and court orders need to be followed. This is true, but other ways can be found to reach the same ends and meet the same objectives without creating so many hurdles in the way of people who need information quickly and at their fingertips. The internet is open to all, which means it may have some highly contentious content. But the mere presence of such content should not trigger a country – which already has a plethora of challenges to deal with – to impose a blanket ban on websites. Wikipedia may be far from perfect but Pakistan’s authorities will eventually discover that they won’t find a perfect website anywhere online. Banning or blocking them all will only harm us, not them.

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