Public Pressure Impacts on Pakistan’s Firewall Plans, 16/03/2012

A deadline set by the Pakistani government for tenders to create a controversial national Internet filtering system passes today, with some companies still to announce whether they intend to bid for the contract. The proposed “National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System” has provoked outrage from campaigners, and resulted in several companies publicly declining to bid for the project, describing it as “morally wrong”.

In February, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA) published a very public tender for the “development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and booking system.” The project, the details of which were announced on the website of the Information and Communications Technology Ministry’s Research and Development Fund, will be worth $10 million to the successful bidder. The Pakistani government even took out newspaper ads to publicize the project.

Many countries have deployed web filtering and blocking systems at the Internet backbones within their countries. However, Pakistani ISPs and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable web sites using current manual blocking systems(…)The system would have a central database of undesirable URLs.

Activists were quick to register their opposition to the proposed filtering system. According to the EFF, the project comes as part of a broader trend towards “moral policing” in Pakistan.

The PTA blocked thousands of sites in 2007—not just those containing pornographic material or content offensive to Islam, but numerous vital websites and services—in response to a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the blocking of “blasphemous” websites. In May of 2010, the PTA blocked Facebook in response to a controversy over a competition to draw the Prophet Mohammed.

The number of Facebook users in Pakistan is believed to be around 50 million.

Reporters Without Borders, who ranked Pakistan 151st out of 179 countries in terms of media freedom in 2011, have also expressed concern about the project.

The adjective “undesirable” used in the invitation to bid is very vague and, above all, subjective. On what legal bases are you planning to block access to information for 20 million Pakistani Internet users? Furthermore, how will you be able to guarantee that the Deep Packet Inspection technology – which permits interception of all kinds of communication, including emails, phone calls, photos and messages posted on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter – will not be misused to monitor Internet users and hunt down dissidents?

Bolo Bhi (Speak Up), an advocacy group based in Karachi, sent open letters to the CEO’s of eight international companies likely to apply for the contract. An online campaign and petition were also created, which have attracted more than 17,000 signatures to date.

In response, five of the eight companies have announced they will not be bidding to build the system. US company Websense was the first to publicly refuse, and called on other companies to do the same.

Broad government censorship of citizen access to the Internet is morally wrong. We further believe that any company whose products are currently being used for government-imposed censorship should remove their technology so that it is not used in this way by oppressive governments.

Another US company, Cisco Systems, who have faced widespread criticism for providing the Chinese government with support in building the so-called Great Firewall of China, have also promised not to bid for the contract. Sandvine and Verizon also distanced themselves from the project.

This week security company McAfee announced via Twitter that they would not be bidding for the Pakistani project.

Their announcement prompted this response from activist Jillian York:

But several companies, including the China-based Huawei and the US company Bluecoat, have refused to comment on whether they will be applying for the contract. Bluecoat have previously drawn criticism for supplying technology used by the Syria government to spy on citizens and opposition members.

ISP providers in Pakistan have cautiously welcomed the planned filtering system, which would ease the institutional pressure and financial burden placed on ISPs to police Pakistani Internet access. However, speaking to Pakistan’s Dawn, the head of the national ISP association, Wahajus Siraj, criticised the vague wording and unclear procedure surrounding the project.

Blocking pornographic websites and blasphemous content is a good move and we appreciate it. Even the installation of a filtering system is fair but what guarantee do we have that this filter will not be used by the government to block websites of media houses, political parties and bloggers in the future?

Several legitimate sites are already blocked along with pornographic websites because they happened to be hosted on the same servers and there is no mechanism to unblock them.

Asfham Mushtaq, a political blogger in Pakistan, expressed his concern.

After the installation of this national level filter, political blogging websites that are critical of the government or any critical international research think-tank that publishes reports against the government or its polices will be under threat of being blocked. This will affect our access to varieties of opinions and information.

Image: Owni

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