Tuesday 14 July 2009

War against Taliban or war against Email - twisted priorities

Sir Tim Berners-Lee creator of the Internet spoke to BBC last September and said that internet needs a way to help people separate rumour from real science. He said that he was increasingly worried about the way the web has been used to spread disinformation.

You need not worry Sir Tim because having won the war (according to the Interior Ministry) against Taliban in Swat valley, government of Pakistan has now declared war on email. It has been reported that government is launching a campaign against circulation of "ill-motivated" and concocted stories through emails and text messages against civilian leadership and security forces of the country. So, sending "indecent", "provocative" and "ill-motivated" stories and text messages through e-mails and SMS is now an offence under the Cyber Crime Act and its violators could be sent behind bars for 14 years besides confiscation of their property. Similarly, any Pakistani living abroad and in violation of this act may be charged and will be liable to deportation to Pakistan.

So what is the commotion about. Lets first define a chain email message: normally an email chain contains a message that, either through overt instruction or through compelling content, encourages the reader to pass it on. My daughter recently received one that commanded "This is real deal, try ignoring it, and the first thing you'll notice is having a horrible day starting tomorrow morning - and it only gets worse from there" scaring a child into forwarding it to all her friends. Surely, government of Pakistan is not worried about such messages, is it!

One that I received was forwarded by a very knowledgeable friend and gave a very systematic breakdown of salaries and benefits available to the members of Parliament in Pakistan. Now this one had content in it that excited me to write a blog post about politicians benefiting from a very small number of tax payers that Pakistan has. Before using the content I did some quick research to confirm authenticity and found that the same message (word by word and number by number) was being circulated in India and linked to Indian politicians. In ten minutes research I was able to find the content (still the same numbers) in a three year old blog post. The message in the email was highly exaggerated but given the global context and mistrust in politicians all across the world it made a good read - nothing more.

But not every recipient of such chain emails would really spend time in checking the authenticity of the content - there are other important things in life after all. But we should be mindful that "for some reason we tend to believe things that we read more than things that we are told. One consequence of this is that email is often treated more seriously than it deserves. The ease with which email can propagate tempts us to not think about it as seriously as we might if we had" to spend money and say share a document by post.

Referring back to Sir Tim "over the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Politicians like Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab province know it too well having been at the receiving end of malicious email campaign directed at his family. Personal photographs of his grown up children were hacked and sent around the world to prove that the family was morally decayed according to "Pakistani" standards.

But is introduction of such draconian rules the way to control these chain mails and texts? Has control ever worked in the ever fluid boundaries of the Internet. China and Iran are good examples - more controlling an environment the more power you give to the underground voices. Is it not better for the Government of Pakistan to change its own policies and bring some transparency and openness in its policy making and communications. And for once recruit some real communicators for change. Lack of trust in the government and politicians will always fuel more chain mails and on-line cults then any laws can stop. Incarceration of those who use the cyberspace to speak their minds will create more heroes then villains.

Finally, could someone tell me whether the government with all its might has been able to stop the FM radio channels run by Taliban in the North West! That's the kind of propaganda stopping which should stay in focus.

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