`You`re a disgrace, PTA` – 12 Feb 2023

THERE`s a certain amount of heartache that`s intrinsic to living in a place like Pakistan. If you`re paying any attention, you`ll see decisions so self-defeating as to be psychotic. You`ll see poor economic performance peel back the bare necessities people need to survive. You`ll see the state spend billions on plots and protocols for its richest citizens anyway. You`ll see powerful people murder weak ones. You`ll see the legal system let them get away with it.

And once all that is done, and every misery imaginable has been inflicted en masse, you`ll see those in power look at whatever tiny joys regular people are left with in their lives, and manically, sadistically, you`ll see them try and snatch those away too.

Last week, a country of 220 million lost access to the largest free repository of knowledge on the planet. Suddenly, the first result to almost everything on Google led to a black screen. Millions of kids doing homework and class projects across the country were left without answers. A window to the outside world closed shut, an immeasurable amount of curiosity left unsatiated. Anywhere else in the world, you`d think this was an elaborate cyberattack aimed at crippling a generation, ensuring they can never compete on the global stage. But really, no amount of foreign conspiracies can come close to the damage dealt by our own limitless stupidity.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) banned Wikipedia on Saturday last week. By Monday, and only after the prime minister`s intervention, the ban was lifted. No specific reasoning was offered for the decision. No apology after its reversal. Enough laws were broken, and constitutional rights violated, that Pd need a whole other column just to list them out.

How then, did this regulator get away with a stupidly illegal move, only to pretend it never happened? Well, it`s got experience. PTA`s greatest hits include blocl(ing Facebook in 2010, YouTube in 2012, the video game PUBG in 2020, and social media app TikTok that same year. All these bans were reversed.

But every time, the damage was done.

Consider YouTube, which stayed banned in Pakistan for four years. Since then, it`s grown to contribute over a billion dollars and 750,000 jobs to the Indian economy. Regular people found a following, monetised their creativity, and turned into stars overnight. Google set up domestic offices. Lives changed. And because countries like India and Bangladesh had not convinced the world that their technological decisions were made by a cabal of suicidal chimpanzees, foreign investment grew exponentially.How many success stories did we undo with that single ban? How many people are there in poverty today who would have been lifted out of it by investments that would have flowed in if not for PTA`s incompetence? Consider PUBG. I`ve never played the game myself. But basic empathy means recognising that something could mean nothing to me and the world to someone else. In the most remote, rural parts of Pakistan, TikTok has become a source of happiness and entertainment for people with very little of it to go around. So, if something brings people joy, harms no one, and breaks no laws, who am I to take it away? How could I be so arrogant as to assume I know what`s better for them? The fact that a regulator routinely exercises this arrogance, has it blow up in its face every time, and does not respect its people enough to apologise for each fresh display of incompetence, is an insult to all of us.

While writing this, I spoke to PTA insiders on the condition of anonymity.

Responses were similar: it`s not really their fault, it`s the `pressure from the maulvis`.

But I`m sorry to breal( it to you; Pakistanitaxpayers don`t pay you to sacrifice their freedoms at the altar of your cowardice. If you don`t have the guts to do your job with integrity, and in the interest of the people you serve, resign.In the meantime, deci‡ions that impact every Pakistani must be debated by elected representatives parliament.

PTA operates under the federal government, which holds the power to cut it down to size and prevent further self-sabotage.

If the folks at PTA (many of whom may indeed be well-intentioned cogs in an undeniably destructive machine) see this column for what it is (a sincere appeal to stop hurting our country), I hope they`ll engage with it. Write a response. Justif y their decisions. And if they can`t do that, I`m sure they can take responsibility for their mistakes; pledge to do better in the future.

But judging by their history, they won`t do that either. Judging by PTA`s history, dear reader, once this column inevitably lands on his desk, a powerful man in Islamabad will put down his paper, take a sip of his tea, and turn to address his subordinates. `Is there any way we can ban this guy too?`• The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara, based in Islamabad.

Twitter: @hkwattoo1

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