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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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.