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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times