The great (fire)wall of Pakistan

Published: March 4, 2012

The writer is Web Editor of The Express Tribune and tweets @Jhaque_ [email protected]

First they came for the Baloch websites, silently, without any justification. Then they banned YouTube and Facebook for weeks in the name of blasphemy. Then came the crackdown on online porn, with over 13,000 sites blocked. Then came the end of Pakistan’s access to Rollingstone.com, due to a single article criticizing Pakistan’s level of military spending.

The modus operandi is almost always the same; instructions are passed from the government, establishment or courts to the Pakistan Telecommunication authority (PTA) who then sends a notice to all internet service providers (ISPs) to block the sites. To legitimize the steps taken, directives and legislation are introduced such as the Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organisation) Act, 1996 that criminalises vague and broad offenses, banning the dissemination of “false” or fabricated” content, or the even vaguer, “mischief.”

The ISPs do not protest, or question whether their customers’ right to information or freedom of expression is being trampled on. They do not even inform their customers that a block has been put in place, or provide a publicly available list of sites blocked along with legal grounds (if any) for blockage. All the customer gets is a single line message upon trying to access a site: this page has been blocked, by orders of the PTA – and now, we may well be getting that message for up to 50 million more sites in Pakistan.

In a bid to establish what is being termed ‘the great (fire)wall of Pakistan’, the government has floated a request calling for proposals to ensure blocking and filtering of “undesirable content” at a national level. The National  ICT Research and Development Fund has sought bids for a system that “should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs with a processing delay of not more than 1 millisecond.”

The implications of such capabilities in the hands of the above institutions, given their history of abuse and lack of cognizance of citizen rights (not to mention servitude to extremist pressure groups), is terrifying. Internet in Pakistan, even with its limited penetration has been the only independent, partially free space for the exchange of information and ideas. To see that come to a quick, strangulated end by having policies and systems set up to censor huge swathes of the online space can only come from individuals/institutions that are fundamentally ignorant of the damage they are inflicting.

To best judge how skewed the priorities of those carrying out this censorship of the internet is, one only has to Google for jihadi literature and websites of anti-state/banned groups such as Hizbut Tahrir Pakistan, to see how they operate online with impunity. Needless to say, the ongoing and upcoming blockage and filtering of web content is likely not a case of good intent, flawed execution.

It is now up to the Ministry of Information Technology to prove to its citizens how exactly their censorship efforts are for the public good, and how they can be held accountable in any instance of violating local or international laws, given that the UN has declared internet access a human right.

Keeping in mind that the PTA’s attempt to ban up to 1,500 words on SMS was thwarted by the combined efforts of civil society, telcos and mass media coverage, there is hope that further blockage of the internet in Pakistan could be nipped in the bud.

At this stage, the average Pakistani must understand that this is not a “good move” to save our youth from “evil” pornography and it is not a “blessing” that will “protect” us from blasphemous content – those orchestrating online censorship are doing it to service themselves or the pressure groups acting upon them, and the impact of this will only be felt once it interferes directly in your life. Imagine the slippery slope from censoring porn and anti-establishment content to censoring your political views, blocking your blog on art, blocking your online forum such as this newspaper’s website for hosting comments deemed ‘undesirable content’. This is all just one step away.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2012.

Reader Comments (54)

  • Ilmana Fasih
    Mar 4, 2012 - 8:37PM

    Everything is fair in the name of public interest. And isn’t this the best revenge of democracy? ?

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  • Mar 4, 2012 - 8:47PM

    Porn today, youtube, google and wikipedia tomorrow.
    No pun intended.

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  • Mehmood khan
    Mar 4, 2012 - 9:13PM

    Porn sites must ban in Pakistan.

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  • Anjaly
    Mar 4, 2012 - 9:27PM

    Another shameful act by Pakistani leaders, we must fight this attempt to silence free media and the internet.

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  • Mj
    Mar 4, 2012 - 9:37PM

    “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

    ― Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of US.

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  • Anwar Ahmad
    Mar 4, 2012 - 9:41PM

    I believe its not the porn that bothers our rulers but free speech is pain in neck for them which they are trying to curtail. Moral lecture and “saving youth from pornography evil” sounds hollow in presence of cable, DVDs, drugs, liquor and h–kers.

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  • Adnan Khan
    Mar 4, 2012 - 10:05PM

    This is just one of the many ways that the poorly uneducated and ill-informed masses are going to ruin things for the tiny minority who can understand and fully appreciate the finer implications alluded to, in the article above.
    .
    Our education system produces drones: educated by rote, whose ability does not rise above regurgitating what they are told. Any ability to question, to investigate, to determine facts for themselves is quashed, at birth.
    .
    Most of us will say “Labbaik” to Big Brother.

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  • blaaah
    Mar 4, 2012 - 10:06PM

    its not going to make any difference. There are a million other ways to watch porn online.

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  • zalim singh
    Mar 4, 2012 - 10:11PM

    LOL

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  • Pakistani
    Mar 4, 2012 - 10:40PM

    I haven’t met a single person who has stopped watching porn just because the porn sites are banned.

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  • Aziz ul Qadir
    Mar 4, 2012 - 10:42PM

    This paper is published in Pakistan by Pakistanis but it is not a Pakistani newspaper….

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  • M Ali Khan
    Mar 4, 2012 - 11:12PM

    @Mehmood khan:

    what is more dangerous to pakistan?

    a masturbating kid or an exploding jihadi?

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  • mj
    Mar 4, 2012 - 11:14PM

    I see pro porn hiding behind big words like of freedom of information access, human rights and freedom of speech. Whats wrong with banning something that is destryoing our youth morally and is ethically wrong??

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  • Marri Baloch
    Mar 4, 2012 - 11:19PM

    If the government is democratic then unblock baloch websites otherwise it will be considered that so called democrates are worst dictators underneath.

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  • Marri Baloch
    Mar 4, 2012 - 11:36PM

    It is Parents responsibility to apply parental lock in computer to stop children from watching porn, but it is my freedom as adult to pursue and spread ideology and it is my right according to human rights and UN charter and state should facilitate every citizen in this regard.

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  • sidjeen
    Mar 4, 2012 - 11:37PM

    they just lost my vote.

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  • Condor
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:20AM

    The author doesn’t know what he is talking about:
    “The ISPs do not protest, or question whether their customers’ right to information or freedom of expression is being trampled on. They do not even inform their customers that a block has been put in place, or provide a publicly available list of sites blocked along with legal grounds (if any) for blockage. All the customer gets is a single line message upon trying to access a site: this page has been blocked, by orders of the PTA – and now, we may well be getting that message for up to 50 million more sites in Pakistan.”

    Uninformed author, please explain what the ISP is supposed to do? Send an email to every customer every time the Government of Pakistan sends a list of sites to be blocked. This happens on a daily basis. Why don’t you first research what and how the PTA passes block lists.

    Second the ISP simply provides Internet access under the laws of the Government of Pakistan and the regulator, the Pakistan Telecom Authority. It is not the ISPs job to advocate a particular policy or question the government or be an advocate of freedom of expression of the people of Pakistan. This is the job of civil society and organizations and watchdogs that that advocate the freedom of speech.

    One more thing author… if any ISP disagrees with the PTA and even resists implementation of block orders, their license gets cancelled and their business is shuttered. So before you go and criticise others why don’t you do some real research about the ISP industry so that you can actually make logical argument on this topic.

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  • Ahsan
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:20AM

    @M Ali Khan…. how many kids exploded before the internet???

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  • Dingadinga
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:24AM

    Mr Marri Baloch please don’t talk about UN charter. Pakistan cannot get basic recognition from UN about holding referendum in Occupied Kashmir. UN charter is not even upheld by Western superpowers and is totally bigoted. So please stop this nonsense.

    If you want to watch porn just get VPN but leave us and our innocent children alone. They dont need to be corrupted Western porn in their lives and should concentrate on their studies.

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  • M Ali Khan
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:43AM

    @mj:
    “Whats wrong with banning something that is destryoing our youth morally and is ethically wrong??”
    how exactly is porn ‘destroying’ our youth when the amount of destruction people who call themselves “soldiers of islam” have in brainwashing teenage kids to be bigots and hate Shias, Ahmedis, Jews, Christians, Atheists, Hindus etc and want to kill them to get jannat??

    Pakistanis really need to re-define what makes an actual threat to this horribly confused and frustrated society. once again, what is more dangerous to you? a masturbating kid or an exploding jihadi??

    be honest with yourselves first please and then talk about “morality”

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  • pk
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:47AM

    We can still access useful sites, we have alternative social networks if stupid FB (waste-of-time) is blocked
    In my opinion blocking pron sites is a good move.

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  • Name NO big deal
    Mar 5, 2012 - 1:38AM

    @Condor:
    Don’t you think you’re moving away from the topic and concentrating on unnecessary things. Agreed ISPs can’t just protest but they can publish the list on their official websites for the users to know which websites are blocked and all.
    But this is hardly an issue the author is discussing..
    You gotta be kidding me if you say you’re not one of the guy working in any of the ISPs of pakistan.

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  • Marri Baloch
    Mar 5, 2012 - 1:59AM

    @Dingadinga:
    Would you gaurantee that state wont use these tools too block the opposition voices.

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  • Falcon
    Mar 5, 2012 - 2:11AM

    Good article. It seems that this democracy has bought into this more than the prior Pervez Musharraf dictatorship. Secondly, I think many people are stuck on the issue of porn and are not realizing that it is only part of a bad news ahead. End of the day, it is question of what others engaged in moral policing think about what is good or bad for us. We have traditionally had bad record of allowing information access, be it in the case of atrocities we committed in Bangladesh, wars against India, and other things we deem as undesirable. Lastly for the issue of porn, you have to see sexual frustration of people who grow up in Saudi Arabia to understand the dynamics of this interesting censorship philosophy and believe me after you will see and hear things that you can’t even imagine, you will come to realize that porn is certainly one of the lesser evils you need to be worried about.

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  • Head Shot
    Mar 5, 2012 - 2:51AM

    ‘Blowing Jihadi’ too explodes in the name of ‘Freedom’ … So every ‘porn’ lover is actually siding with the suicide bombing as well, coz both acts are done in the name of ‘Freedom’ … natural balance isn’t ?

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  • Kamran
    Mar 5, 2012 - 3:23AM

    @M Ali Khan:
    ‘Honor’ matter for many millions, just like ‘Freedom’ matters for you – ‘Threat’ for few is ‘Blessing’ for others …

    you are confused, God isn’t … Morality is the primary focus of Islam that means if there is no morality then there is no Islam. If sex/porn/prostitution is the oldest profession of humanity so is killing the oldest crime.

    This country will never become the playground for playboys … Every sinful devil must fear of his sudden death which will come by means of suicide attacks, shooting, explosions.

    This is nature

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  • mahreen
    Mar 5, 2012 - 3:27AM

    great approach and very powerful writing style Jahanzeb.

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  • Dingadinga
    Mar 5, 2012 - 3:34AM

    @Marri Baloch
    I can confirm to you that PTA block sites contain blocks for some organizations. I cannot guarantee anything this is the job of our institutions to check and balance eachother and self police. I am only saying please don’t quote organizations like UN that cannot provide justice to our fellow Kashmiris and Pakistan from whom Kashmir was unlawfully usurped.

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  • Cynical
    Mar 5, 2012 - 4:24AM

    Watching porn is not banned either in US or in China.And still each of them manage to have enough money to lend us.So it may not be such a bad thing to watch porn.

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  • gp65
    Mar 5, 2012 - 4:26AM

    @Pakistani Hindu: “Porn today, youtube, google and wikipedia tomorrow.
    No pun intended.”

    No pun was evident, so no-one could have mistaken your statement as a pun even if you had not clarified.

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  • Zakir Mukeem
    Mar 5, 2012 - 6:26AM

    finding it difficult to propagate anti state sentiment via internet and media? bad luck for the bad guys in pakistan :(

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  • Marri Baloch
    Mar 5, 2012 - 7:58AM

    @Dingadinga:
    It is my discretion who to quote and who not and I am not ready to give my freedom of information and freedom of speech in the name of stupid pornography ban.

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  • Ahmed
    Mar 5, 2012 - 8:57AM

    @pk I do not consider Facebook to be a waste of time. I am a teacher and I even use it to communicate online articles to my students, let alone stay in touch with my family who do not live with me.

    If you consider FB a waste of time, then don’t use it! I consider Humsafar, Commitee parties and buying lawn to be a waste of time so should that be blocked too? No. The point is if you consider it bad, do not do it, but don’t curtail the right of somoene else, who actually uses it in a useful way, to use it.

    Otherwise, I am coming after your useless Darses and your wife’s committee parties.

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  • Ali Hasan
    Mar 5, 2012 - 10:43AM

    @Condor:
    So what you’re saying is that everybody should do everything they’re told in fear of the sacrifice they may eventually have to give should they protest?

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  • usman butt
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:29PM

    Its just a move to ensure the sovereignty of the country,anything which is creating a bad image of Pakistan must b dealt with iron hands… The problem is the proper handling of these matters,not the actions….

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  • Sayyed Mehdi
    Mar 5, 2012 - 12:38PM

    Guys! The problem with this isn’t banned pornography. The problem is that our government can use it to ban anything they want.

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  • Naveed
    Mar 5, 2012 - 2:36PM

    Yes porn sites must be banned … all of them. we cannot risk making our young generation junk eating, masturbating, couch potatoes like the American kids. those who think banning porn is an assault on Freedom of Speech, are living in fool’s paradise. dnt drag liberalism to another extreme.

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  • Straight Fire
    Mar 5, 2012 - 3:18PM

    @Sayyed Mehdi:
    So what’s the problem, let the Govt. ban anything they want. It’s Govt after all. Soon to be Taliban Govt will do a lot more than that … why not just prepare yourself … lol

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  • Condor
    Mar 5, 2012 - 3:45PM

    @Ali Hasan

    All I’m saying is it is not the ISPs job to police. If you want to be a martyr in the name of Internet freedom please go ahead. Don’t expect others to follow you in this death wish. And you can bet its a death wish because the fundooos in this country are going to pass a fatwa against anyone who speaks up against banning anything unIslamic since everything that has anything to do with freedom of expression is misconstrued as unIslamic these days.

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  • Alee Siddiqui
    Mar 5, 2012 - 4:52PM

    Every country has policy , american block some sites even, Chinies do not allow to watch West sites, Russian donot allow american sites. So the preachers of Freedom of speech do not implement freedom of speech in their own country, why are you following them.

    By the way not every parents have a knowlodge of firewall. Let us be reallistic here.

    Think Big, don’t follow them.

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  • jawaid
    Mar 5, 2012 - 4:53PM

    Govt has done an excellent job by blocking porn. Atleast they have made effort in the right direction. Liberels are crying not for freedome of speech but for porn which is a western agenda for destroying muslims family sysyem like they have destroyed their own.

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  • faraz
    Mar 5, 2012 - 5:19PM

    @Ahmed: There are lot many ways to communicate with students! What’s so special about using FB? Not opposed to using FB but just couldn’t digest your argument!

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  • faraz
    Mar 5, 2012 - 5:26PM

    We are not the first nation with internet censorship, there are lot many. Freedom of speech doesn’t dictate freedom of everything and I believe sites speaking against national interests, pornography and nudity etc. should be filtered regardless the stereotype that all such things are being done in the name of religion.

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  • huggybow
    Mar 5, 2012 - 6:10PM

    i dont see any problem with a firewall , porn sites getting blocked is a good sign . but there should be a proper guideline that which sites should be banned and which should be not .

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  • Marri Baloch
    Mar 5, 2012 - 6:49PM

    The state does not have good record in censorship, the censorship was used by zia on tv channel and print media to curb opposition and few years ago musharraf used it too on channels, this is the same mentality which asks for shutting every one who is different who is minority, it is opressive attitude towards everyone who is in opposition. It is same mindset which bans Shezan juice in Lahore Bar, bans facebook,blocks baloch website, bans ahmadis from practising religion,legitimises killings of shias,opresses christians,declares hindus as enemies. I would like to ask from guys who are for censorship, block porns in your computer and dont try your censorship policy to affect others who are fighting for their rights.

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  • Talat Haque
    Mar 5, 2012 - 6:57PM

    What a mess we are in!

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  • mj
    Mar 5, 2012 - 7:27PM

    @M ali khan oh please , how is internet creating Jihadis when more than half of population don’t even have access to it,?? Recommend

  • Just Truth
    Mar 5, 2012 - 7:42PM

    Porn sites cause the youth and even the grown-ups to self destruct. Studies in the West have linked porn watching to depression and suicide. Banned or not, in their own self interest, people should avoid watching porn. Must block pop ups to ensure that no one is led astray.

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  • Shakky
    Mar 5, 2012 - 9:03PM

    Those who advocate the blocking of porn sites are probably also the people who leer at women in jeans or skirts. For these people, the porn is in their heads and no amount of Internet blocking will fix what is in their minds. If you ban women wearing jeans or skirts then these ghairatmand porn police will find something else to leer at. Access to porn sites does not demean Pakistan. Actually, it is the bigoted and intolerant actions which demeans Pakistan.Recommend

  • Shah
    Mar 6, 2012 - 11:20AM

    Guys stop fighting if you want to access these site use hotspot.best part is its free….

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  • skrenata
    Mar 7, 2012 - 7:58AM

    It’s practically impossible to fully block porn. The flow of science and technology will destroy those who try to come in its way.

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  • renata
    Mar 7, 2012 - 8:03AM

    It’s my birth right to watch porn or whatever I want. it’s one else’s business. What is immoral to you can be moral to others, and vise versa.

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  • Truthseer
    Mar 9, 2012 - 8:22AM

    Those claiming that the porn is in the minds of the people are being simply hilarious at this point. The difference between watching something like porn, Mr.Shakky, and watching a woman is huge, It’s like the difference between having sex with someone or looking at someone. The ‘Educated Minority’ come off looking worse because they hold such horrible opinions. What, in the word ‘porn’ is about information blocking?
    And someone said US is doing well. As anyone with an ounce of information should know, the US is in more debt than they have currency. You can search for this. China, on the other hand, who blocks stuff on the net, has money. So who’s right?

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  • Mar 21, 2012 - 12:21AM

    The Pakistan regime isn’t blocking Pakistani peoples’ access to the internet to save children from pornography, and it isn’t doing it out of ignorance.

    It is doing it out of a very clear understanding that free discussion and debate among people in and outside of Pakistan will very quickly result in a population that demands its freedom, dignity, and human rights. It sees revolution on the horizon, as does every despotic regime in the region.

    There is a reason why the terrorists are allowed to continue to network & propagate while the citizens who think critically and seek freedom are not.

    Best regards to honorable and freedom seeking people in Pakistan.

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