April issue 2012
Block and Ban: Internet Censorship in Pakistan
March 16 was the deadline for sending proposals on internet filtering and blocking systems to the National Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Research and Development (R&D) Fund functioning under the auspices of the ministry of information technology. The fund is spearheading a project on the “development, deployment and operation of a national level URL Filtering and Blocking System.”
As bidders win, thousands of internet users lose. The bid, in simple words, amounts to internet censorship. It curbs freedom of expression.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the move was widely condemned. Reporters Without Borders, an international group that safeguards the freedom of speech, warned Pakistan authorities that if they “go ahead” with the project, the country “could be added to the Enemies of the Internet in 2013.” The organisation sent a formal letter to the concerned authorities “to abandon this project.”
And it seems that the “concerned authorities,” according to recent information, seem to have abandoned it. Ms Bushra Gohar, a prominent legislator from the ruling Awami National Party, says it is being scrapped altogether. Maybe better sense has prevailed, but whatever the current status of the floated tender, digital space has been filtered several times on various pretexts.
Not so long ago, the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) attempted to ban 1500 ‘immoral’ terms from text messaging. PTA has also blocked access to porn websites. Issues like blasphemy and national security have been subjected to censorship on the internet in the past. Additionally, several Baloch websites, updating information on the turbulent state of affairs in Balochistan, have been pulled off. Likewise, a magazine like Rolling Stone was made inaccessible, arguably over national security considerations. One of the more notable incidents in the recent past was the complete blockade of sites like Facebook and YouTube in response to a Facebook page called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”
ICT’s proposed system is vague about its blocking criteria. According to the terms of reference, the proposed system “would have a central database of undesirable URLs that would be loaded on the distributed hardware boxes,” whereby each “box should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs.”
What constitutes ‘undesirable’ remains a point of debate in Pakistan. The technical precision of their work aside, the engineers and technical experts who conceptualised the project never bothered to clarify exactly what was meant by the word ‘undesirable.’
Firstly, to impose one person’s absolute value system upon a whole society is an artificial attempt to gel the system. Even if we accept the fact that some undesirable content needs to be blocked off, the barometer may vary from person to person. For example, during the recent word filtering of text messages, many a medical term was filtered off.
To block one set of sites and not others is like setting foot in a political minefield and can cause discontent in different segments of society. At the same time, the state’s action against a particular set of sites also exposes its own biases. The government has been found to take severe action against those sites which, in its view, were objectionable to the ideological vision of the state; contrast these sites with those that continue to spew hatred in the name of religion. The state’s fundamental divides on issues such as the civil-military imbalance, identity politics, the role of religion, etc. will be further reflected in its choice of filtered websites.
Ironically, while political forces bitterly contest these issues in the non-digital sphere, they are silent spectators when curbs put on the same topics on the internet. Part of this may be due to the fact that the internet may not be the primary source of information for politicians and is therefore low on their list of priorities. This may well change in the near future and they may just end up being its key users.
In that case, plans of internet filtering may hit the government the hardest. Their own liberal ethos could be subjected to tight scrutiny in the years to come. But the blame will also rest with them. Anyone tapping and un-tapping the flow of the internet, will accuse the democratic government of having initiated the process of filtering.
This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Block and Ban.”