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