How to look at vulgarity on Internet


Our government’s got it wrong

Criticising a proposed Internet surveillance and censorship program last week, I had argued that the Internet is not just a public communications network, but a culture. Because Pakistan’s legislators and public officials do not realise the difference, they do not have the administrative or intellectual capacity to understand the consequences of such regulation.

As a public communications network, our government looks at the Internet as a set of interconnected roads that can be used to transport information for the purposes of business, entertainment or control. It looks at the Internet as a means of “mass communication”, an instrument of influence and persuasion, and a tool that can be used to change opinions and behaviour. It wants to regulate the social and psychological conditions in which this exchange of information takes place. And that is why it is obsessed with only two things: ‘national security’ and ‘vulgarity’.

But like all other technology, the Internet can also be looked at as a cultural phenomenon. As much as it is about transmission of information across communication lines, it is about simultaneous participation of people in new social rituals. As much as it is about imparting information and opinion, it is about creating shared meanings and shared beliefs. In that way, it belongs to the commoners and is a coarse and unrefined vernacular. That is the definition of ‘vulgar’.

For a government that has little control over a large percentage of its geographical area, spending $10 million to regulate the tribal area of the world wide web is fascinating. Seeing the Internet as a public “mass communication” network, the government can use two scientific strategies to understand and regulate it.

The first such strategy is behavioural science, which uses the Interest Theory (a causal explanation) or Strain Theory (a functional explanation) to elucidate laws of behaviour. These laws are statistically true and applicable in general to everyone, but their problem is that they are applicable to no one in particular. For example, even if an overwhelming percentage of young people violate a particular law or watch pornography on the Internet, the statistics cannot be used to implicate any one of them or justify taking away their privacy and freedom.

The second strategy is of formal science, which elucidates structures. The problem with that approach is that it may be blind to cultural contexts. For example, in the past our governments has banned human rights blogs and political websites in the name of national security, and sites containing medical information that include names of body parts, or all websites with the word ‘shoes’ in them, while trying to block pornography.

Although there is a strong case for the government to regulate the Internet in order to protect people’s fundamental rights, developing a blanket censorship and surveillance system bypassing these problems will only lead to oppression.

Communication theorists have therefore started embracing these problems rather than avoiding them. Raymond Williams believes the term Mass Communication a) considers limited specialized fields such as film and broadcasting and not the whole common area of discourse, b) considers large audience but not specific communication situations, and c) sees media as one-sided flow of information that corrupts the passive mass audience. Stuart Hall says the term limits the studies both methodologically and substantively. Culture refers to a way of life, he says, while communication is an isolated segment of existence.

James Carey, author of Communication as Culture, says communication studies have to deal with the challenge of untangling “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures”. There is no long-distance mind reading in doing so, Carey says, but an attempt to interpret how people interpret their experiences.

The writer is a media and culture critic and works at The Friday Times. He tweets @paagalinsaan and gets email at [email protected]


  1. Yeh bakwas choro. Es ka koi faeda nahi. Awam ke asal issue ki taraf aao. Power tariffs mein 21% rise ka notice lo. Es issue per lakho aur bolo aur awam ko bill na pay karney pe motivate karo, keh shaed government ko sharam aaye aur logon ko mazeed nanga na karey.

  2. Harris Munawar an absolute idiot….Read a couple of his previous articles regarding Pakistans internal matters and I must say… That Mr Munawar if your wanting an American Green Card your on track for it buddy keep writing things like this (against the betterment of Pakistan) and i can assure you that one day you will be getting a one way ticket where u will be up and out of this world. If your trying to gain negative publicity keep going cause you are going into a pool of people like Zaid Hamid who only have rubbish and whole lot of bullshit to frustrate the minds of the Public

  3. We are moderate Muslims…we oppose violence, aloofness, non-integration, racial-cum-religious superiority etc.. which fundamentalists adhere to…However we oppose anything which mocks Islam and Mohammad(PBUH), our culture and society…there are many things which we don’t follow…so thus our Government is right regulating and controlling internet…the same should be applied to NEWS and Media.

    • "Although there is a strong case for the government to regulate the Internet in order to protect people’s fundamental rights, developing a blanket censorship and surveillance system bypassing these problems will only lead to oppression"

      first read article u a-hole

  4. You write well Harry, but this article wasn't impressive, especially because you copied several sentences from the previous article.

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