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on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age: Access to Information versus Online Censorship
By Wajeeha Ahmad
Wajeeha Ahmad is a rising senior at MIT studying mathematics.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.  The ability to exercise this freedom without fear is central to living in an open and fair society. Although access to the Internet affords ease of expression, in all too many countries around the world, citizens find that governments block or restrict access to the internet, or close down sites that represent a particular viewpoint.
In December 2014, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko approved the law titled "On introducing amendments to the Law on Mass Media of the Republic of Belarus." Based on vaguely formulated legal provisions, these amendments give the state the expansive right to interfere with any information posted on the Internet. At the end of 2014, more than 10 informational resources were blocked for some time without legal grounds for doing so. Moreover, the government in Belarus has gone after journalists who seek to skirt state censorship by broadcasting from outside the country. Early this year, a journalist was found guilty of “illegal dissemination of media products” for having “illegally interviewed” residents of a Belarusian village for Belsat, an independent Belarusian channel that broadcasts from neighboring Poland. 
In 2010, all domestic Internet service providers and the technology departments of all state educational, cultural, and government institutions in Belarus were required to install filtering technology enabling the government to block sites it deemed objectionable. The government also announced that it was compiling blacklists of both local and international sites deemed offensive. As part of the initiative, Lukashenko granted the state Operational Analytical Center the power to issue binding directives to state agencies and Internet providers concerning Web and broadcast content. 
The biggest threat to journalists is the possibility for the Ministry of Information to block online media without judicial decisions. Without the definition of which exact websites are lawful, the authorities could use its norms in fact against any Internet resources, regardless of the fact whether they are considered to be mass media in the countries of their location. Not only websites from Belarus can be blocked; websites from anywhere can also be blocked, for even a single violation of the law.
Traditionally, the government obstructs the dissemination of information about corruption amongst the authorities, relations between the ruling elites, and also coverage of the situation in the country during an economic crisis. Whereas previously, the government resorted to unlawful restriction of access to websites from time to time – without admitting to the blocking – now it has the legal possibility to block "objectionable" websites without judicial sanctions. Starting in 2016, in compliance with the Presidential Decree No. 6 "On urgent measures to combat illegal drugs trafficking", Internet providers will be obliged to collect and store information about what websites Internet users visit, creating the possibility for total control over web users.
In Pakistan, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2015 has been passed by a National Assembly standing committee.  The addition of Section 31 of the Proposed Cybercrime Bill gives the national telecommunications authority the “power to issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system…if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.” 
According to human rights groups, this would legalize state censorship of the internet, limit the freedom of citizens to criticize public figures online, and make user surveillance a legal obligation for all internet service providers. Moreover, the bill has created an excessively broad scope to justify blocking material online as any media that criticizes the policies of countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United States could fall under “friendly relations with foreign states”, and consequently be blocked without a direct order from the Supreme Court, or an evaluation of the material. Considering the invasive new legislation on wiretapping and lack of structures ensuring online privacy, activists and citizens are subject to oppressive policies of the state as well as the threat of vigilante violence with effectively no safeguards.
While the cybercrime bill formalizes the government’s forceful removal of content that could hamper its legitimacy, mass media repression was not unheard of prior to the new legislation. Pakistani digital rights organization Bytes4All reported in 2012 that the government froze mobile phone networks in the province of Balochistan on August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day in an effort to stifle dissent.  According to a report from the OpenNet Initiative [PDF], Balochistan seems to be the primary target of government censors, which have ordered the blocking of Balochi news, independence and culture websites.  Consequently, many such sites have closed down, purposeless without a native audience. Citizen protests in response to the crackdowns, which have moved the government’s flirtation with stifling freedom of expression on the Internet to a full-blown affair, can eventually further widen the gulf of trust deficit, instigating more violence and rebellion among citizens.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s new bill is part of a wave of new cybercrime legislation and concerns over digital surveillance across the world.
The Internet is transforming the fight for free expression. While technology plays an immensely important role in advancing freedom of speech and expression as the next five billion people come online for the first time, governments responding with censorship laws and bans in an attempt to silence criticism and stifle dissent will only allow their citizens to backslide into repression.
In order to protect the free flow of information and enable free expression, states need to back away from anachronistic legislation that suppresses online freedom of speech, and empower individual voices and concerns. Access to information and connection enabled by the Internet empowers people. Thwarting online censorship will enable and protect democracy, support free expression and access to information for people who need it most — those living under repressive regimes. Thus, the current laws must evolve to protect freedom of expression, not repress it.
 “Freedom of Expression | Freedom House,” accessed June 20, 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/issues/freedom-expression.
 “Belarusian Journalist Convicted Of ‘Illegal’ Reporting,” The Huffington Post, 55:24 500, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/belarusian-journalist-convicted-of-illegal-reporting_us_56966275e4b086bc1cd5fecf.
 “Attacks on the Press 2010: Belarus - Committee to Protect Journalists,” accessed June 20, 2016, https://www.cpj.org/2011/02/attacks-on-the-press-2010-belarus.php.
 Jamal Shahid, “‘Flawed’ Cybercrime Bill Approved,” April 17, 2015, http://www.dawn.com/news/1176440.
 Dawn com | Raza Khan, “Controversial Cyber Crime Bill Approved by NA,” April 13, 2016, http://www.dawn.com/news/1251853.
 “Balochistan Suffers Another Kill Switch on Independence Day 2012 | Bytes for All Pakistan,” accessed June 20, 2016, http://content.bytesforall.pk/node/63.
 Open Net Initiative, Pakistan, 2010, accessed June 20, 2016, https://opennet.net/sites/opennet.net/files/ONI_Pakistan_2010.pdf.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Marcie Casas
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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