During the past week, around the time of the 23rd March parade, reports started surfacing that Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had banned the popular blog and website hosting site Wordpress. The site remained accessible to large portions of the population but many reported seeing the ‘blocked from viewership in Pakistan’ screen – of YouTube fame. Officials deny it, the site is now freely accessible, and we may perhaps never know if the PTA banned it or not – and that is the root of the problem. PTA has spread its tentacles into every mode of internet viewership and is veritably operating without any set of rules, code of conduct, or clearly defined powers; censoring content at will, or more accurately, at whim. Now, none other than Nawaz Sharif himself has seen fit to grant it more powers; retroactively justifying its illegal actions and dealing a massive blow to the already restricted freedom to information in this country.

The premier disbanded Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) and granted these powers to regulator PTA, with the mandate to devise effective mechanism to manage content on the internet, officially giving PTA the job they have already been doing quite zealously. Meanwhile, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, currently under debate in the Parliament, would authorise PTA to permanently block any website after input from the cyber crime agency, which will be formed if the bill passes. In and of themselves, both of these steps are beneficial; the first one centralises internet content monitoring and the second one creates a much-needed specialized cyber crime division, especially since the National Action Plan also mandates measures to stop promotion of terrorism online. Yet, without a clear framework within which PTA is to operate, these are just additional tools in the hands of the PTA, and considering its track record we can expect more unnecessary, arbitrary and misguided censorship.

Presently, PTA is required to give no justification for blocking a site, and the onus of unblocking it rests on civilians who have to go through time-consuming and costly legal channels to challenge its decisions. There is no yardstick against which the “objectionable” nature of the website can be measured. Instead they are charged with nebulous responsibilities such as “to promote and protect the interests of users of telecommunication services in Pakistan”. We have seen the result of that. PTA has ‘protected’ us from YouTube, liberal blogs, musicians and scantily clad women while terrorists spread propaganda in the open. It is time to rein in the wild PTA and give it direction. It needs defined powers under a defined framework pursuing defined objectives. It also needs a separate, and simpler, tribunal dedicated to hearing petitions seeking to unblock sites.