6 February 2023

Staff Report


LAHORE

Civil society organisations, technology firms, universities and leading academicians on Monday demanded that the federal government reverse a ban on Wikipedia in Pakistan.

In a statement, 72 organisations from civil society and the business community, 15 representatives from universities and 24 citizen stakeholders from across Pakistan condemned the blocking of Wikipedia by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on February 3, 2023, after “degrading” access to the platform for 48 hours on February 1,

2023.

“Blocking an educational platform like Wikipedia, which is accessed 55 million times
per month in Pakistan, violates citizens’ right to access information guaranteed by
Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan,” the signatory organisations stated.
At a time when the country is going through an unprecedented economic downturn,
we are concerned about the large economic cost of a blanket ban on Wikipedia for

students and information workers, the organsiations added.

“The actions of the PTA, invoking the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online
Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 (Rules 5(7)(2)(ii)(a) and Rule
5(7)(2)(ii)(b)), are also contrary to the order of the honourable Islamabad High Court

issued in May 2021, which directed Parliament to review the Rules.”

The commitment was reiterated recently by the Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights during Pakistan Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on January 30, 2023, stating:
“In light of the feedback from the local and international human rights constituencies we are revisiting the online social media rules and aligning these rules with principles of international law and good practices. With this overarching approach, we take good note of the suggestions made in this important thematic area and will thoroughly

reflect on them”.

The organisations said the PTA’s use of these Rules, while under review, should be dealt with by the courts as per law. Furthermore, as per international human rights law, any curtailment of speech and information needs to be proportionate in nature, necessary to the specific harm being caused and established by law. This blanket ban does not meet

any of these requirements, the signatories said.

Wikipedia is a community-driven, free-to-access repository of knowledge from
across the world and it has revolutionized the way people access information. The
platform stands for a democratized approach to knowledge creation, where anyone
with access to an Internet connection can edit articles, subject to referencing

requirements.

“This feature makes it difficult for the platform to intervene to remove content, however, it does allow anyone who wants to contest an article or information on the platform to edit it accordingly.”

It is expected that the ban on Wikipedia will severely impact the ability of Pakistani
freelancers and businesses to provide globally competitive services and earn

precious foreign exchange for the country, the organisations said.

According to the ILO, Pakistan provides the third largest number of online labour in the world, and as per the Ministry of IT and Telecommunication (MoITT), freelancers generated US$397 million in remittances for the country during the fiscal year 2021-22. The exports of telecommunication, computer and information services stands at $2.6 billion in FY22.
Add to this the nearly $400 million in remittances generated by freelancers and over

$350M raised by Pakistani startups.

Collectively, the size of the IT and communications industry is approaching $3.5 billion according to the State Bank of Pakistan. “When news about the banning of the top information website reaches global investors and companies, it is expected to generate a negative sentiment among them,” signatory organisations said.

“Students and professionals from across the country can attest to the positive role
the platform has had on their work, facilitating education and knowledge-sharing,
particularly for people who do not have alternative enabling resources to purchase

books and access websites behind paywalls.”

The ban will disproportionately impact the most marginalized among us, creating a monopoly of knowledge for the elite and cause an unjust exclusion from co-creation of information and knowledge in various fields of human endeavours in thought, invention and discovery, the signatory organisations said.

“Civil society, the business community and citizen stakeholders stand against this
arbitrary and damaging ban on Wikipedia, and the larger misuse of broad laws such
as Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which must be
repealed in the long run if the country wishes to uphold its own constitutional
values, which guarantee the right to information and freedom of expression to its

citizens.”

The signatory organisations also launched a hashtag #SaveWikipedia to garner public support for the reversal of the ban on the information website. The signatories from educational institutions included Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan; Bahria University; Comsats University, Islamabad; Government College University (GCU); University of Management & Technology (UMT); Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi; Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan; Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS); National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST); NFC Institute of Engineering and Technology, University of Multan; Quaid e Azam University, Islamabad; University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore; University of Karachi, and University of Lahore (UCL).

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