Freedom of speech extinguishes firewalls in Pakistan

An online civil society group in Karachi wins a reprieve on internet censorship.

In February this year the Pakistan government, under influence from the military state, put out a $10 million public tender for “development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking system”. Until this point the left hand and the right hand, as the country’s irrepressible satirists would have it, were doing different things: despite an ability to cut off internet sites such as Facebook and Youtube (and pornography sites), services have only been blocked infrequently and reinstated in the ensuing uproar. And despite being known to big up their surveillance capacity, the move was seen as a way for the ISI to bring internet censorship more into their domain.  

This effort by the state to create a firewall with automatic blocking and filtering along the lines of China seemed to be different. Instead of being shrouded in secrecy, the contracts for tender were openly put out in the media and through the Ministry of Communication and Technology and described a system that would have,

a central database of undesirable URLs that would be loaded on to the distributed hardware boxes at each POP and updated on a daily basis . . . technology should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs (concurrent unidirectional filtering capacity) with processing delay of not more than 1 milliseconds . . . The database would be regularly updated through subscription to an international reputed company maintaining and updating such databases. 

It allowed Pakistan’s energetic and harassed civil society and civil rights defenders, including Bytes for All to get ahead. “The authorities [for which read military] are big fans of China and how it filters the Internet,” Sana Saleem, 24-year-old founder of Bolo Bhi, whose civil liberties and site had been blocked for several months in 2010, told the New York Times. “They overlook the fact that China is an autocratic regime and we are a democracy.” 

“What makes this kind of censorship so insidious is that they always use national security, pornography or blasphemy as an explanation for blocking other kinds of speech.”  

She wrote to the chief executives of eight international companies asking them to publically declare that they would not tender for the contract. So far five - including Websense, McAfee, Cisco Systems and Verizon - have made that commitment. Those still in the running include Huawei of China. 

Then in March, Farooq Awan, Pakistan’s IT secretary, told Bolo Bhi that the plan for the national URL filtering and blocking system had been shelved; that the ministry did not know who had initiated it and that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) were not keen on the system after all the criticism. Bolo Bhi, along with other civil society members, is now seeking a high-court injunction against PTA for censoring the internet in a way that violates Pakistan’s laws and constitution. 

Unless the military adopt Chinese tactics and use secrecy to put a firewall in place, the attempted ban on censorship seems to have temporarily failed. Bad news for one of its instigators, the religious and pious “15-year-old” computer nerd Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah, who complained for months on end to PTA that pornography sites needed to be censored and when asked to provide a list came up with 780,000 of them; excellent news for Pakistan’s enthusiastic texters and tweeters who learnt words they didn’t know on a projected list of PTA banned text words that has also failed to be implemented. 

The issue of internet surveillance isn’t just relevant in Pakistan. In February there was a tweet comment about projected internet scrutiny by the Indian government from @pragmatic_d in Delhi: “Wow. A government which can't clean drains properly wants to scan all emails, tweets and updates.”

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor

A Pakistani boy plays with an advertisement of a laptop computer in Lahore. Photo: Getty Images
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”