Internet censorship: Activists worry as authorities push for automated filtering

Published: April 18, 2012

" A transparent and automated system for blocking of blasphemous and objectionable contents is fully supported by PTA," PTA Chairman Muhammad Yaseen.

KARACHI: 

After broadband operators’ vocal support for the implementation of an automated URL filtering system, proponents of internet freedom have started worrying that the government will go ahead with its censorship plans. They say that if the government fails to ensure transparency and accountability in the system’s working, it will be the last nail in the coffin of internet freedom.

The Internet Service Providers Association (Ispak), in an email, has confirmed its support for the National URL Filtering and Blocking System – this will enable the en masse blocking of websites that contain ‘blasphemous’ and ‘pornographic’ content, as well as those that ‘pose a threat’ to ‘national security’. The system is to be implemented at the internet gateways of PTCL and TWA – the two submarine cables connecting Pakistan with the global internet.

Internet service providers back the proposed automation of the current manual censorship process, and argue that it poses no threat to internet freedom. “There is nothing wrong with the concept and the system wouldn’t compromise the performance of the Internet,” Ispak Convener Wahajus Siraj tells The Express Tribune.

“The practice of manual URL blocking is already in place,” Siraj explains. “If the government wants to block a website posing a threat to national security, it doesn’t need the automated system,” he adds. “Opposing the idea of an automated system, therefore, doesn’t make sense.”

Siraj says that the selection of controversial websites is a policy issue, and has nothing to do with automation of the current system; which is an operational matter.

Internet activists, on the other hand, have an entirely different view of the proposed system; they sometimes refer to it as Pakistan’s equivalent of the Great Fire Wall of China.

“The term ‘automation’ is misleading because it gives the impression that it is [merely] automating a process that’s already happening. This takes away the severity of the issue,” says Sana Saleem – a blogger at The Guardian, Global Voices and Dawn.

Saleem – who is leading a campaign against internet censorship for human rights organisation Bolobhi – says there is no legislation governing internet censorship, while the government has also not been able to assure transparency and accountability in the working of the proposed system.

“This isn’t about simple automation of pre-existing censorship – which would be wrong nonetheless – but about acquiring a flip-flop switch for broader censorship,” Saleem says. “Under the current system, they can’t access users’ personal data at the https level – but the automated system will allow them to do so,” she adds. “They can block any website without reason. Several Baloch websites have already been blocked.”

“We do not expect the government to ignore hate speech or cyber-crime, but a committee comprising all stakeholders needs to define these terms clearly and a policy document needs to be devised,” she opines. “The constitution prohibits distribution of such content, but the internet is not the distributor,” she points out; “people access it voluntarily.”

An Inter-Ministerial Committee presently decides which websites should be blocked. Its board is comprised of bureaucrats, and there is no representation from the private sector, civil society or even parliament. Saleem believes this must change. “A legislation that is friendly and approved by all should make its way to the parliament in the true spirit of democracy,” she says.

The Pakistan Telecommuni­cation Authority, however, has hinted that it will adopt the program at any cost.

“A cost effective, automated and transparent system for blocking of blasphemous and objectionable contents is fully supported by PTA,” PTA Chairman Muhammad Yaseen said in a statement, while responding to queries from The Express Tribune. “The current process of blocking, being manual and tedious, is difficult to implement and has its limitations,” he added.

According to Yaseen, the publication and promotion of ‘blasphemous’, ‘un-Islamic’, ‘offensive’, ‘objectionable’, ‘unethical’ and ‘immoral’ material ‘discomforts’ the majority of the population of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and “the government needs to address their concerns.”

“There is no denying the advantages of the internet, but the same should not be at the cost of religious norms,” he stated.

Point out a potential flaw in such reasoning, Saleem says that ‘objectionable’, ‘obscene’ and even ‘national security’ are poorly defined terms that may act as ploys for broader surveillance and censorship.

So far, the government has remained silent in response to Saleem’s queries asking who was taken on board before the proposal was formulated for the automated censorship system. Internet activists are despairing because of a lack of transparency and worry that the proposal will be pushed without addressing their concerns.

“We know that they might just go ahead with it,” says Saleem.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2012.

Reader Comments (23)

  • Muhammad
    Apr 18, 2012 - 8:46AM

    zero effort by the government on enforcing exisiting laws on Internet Merchant Banking
    that would allow individuals to earn money

    but it is going full speed with internet filtering which will sever no economic purpose.

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  • Tariq
    Apr 18, 2012 - 9:47AM

    Bunch of idiots just taking seemingly popular measures without doing anything to develop online business opportunities that are available in other countries.

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  • SaQiB
    Apr 18, 2012 - 10:09AM

    Its a good effort………..should go on with its implementation….

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  • striver of progress in pk
    Apr 18, 2012 - 10:28AM

    good step big shame for so called activists for promoting vulgarity on the name of activism.

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  • DevilHunterX
    Apr 18, 2012 - 11:02AM

    According to Yaseen, the publication and promotion of ‘blasphemous’, ‘un-Islamic’, ‘offensive’, ‘objectionable’, ‘unethical’ and ‘immoral’ material ‘discomforts’ the majority of the population of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and “the government needs to address their concerns.”

    Majority of the Pakistani population is not online.

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  • asim
    Apr 18, 2012 - 11:08AM

    the only reason the ISPs are supporting this is that blocking porn sites (video heavy) and sites like youtube (which is non-pornographic) would mean that there servers have less load.

    So it becomes cheaper and profitable for them to provide bandwith.
    What hypocrites.

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  • Ahmer Ali
    Apr 18, 2012 - 11:16AM

    I request Pakistani government close all internet/DSL services at once in Pakistan instead of closing links/URLs partially.

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  • sidjeen
    Apr 18, 2012 - 11:32AM

    and then we wonder why there is support for taliban activities in our country well that is because our leaders are also taliban in their thinking.shame on PTA.

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  • A
    Apr 18, 2012 - 11:54AM

    Firstly why should the government of Pakistan listen to someone who blogs.. yanni seriously what are her qualifications with regards to Internet management? I am yet to hear what Ms. Saleem has done to make her an expert on this issue. Point is if the ISPs want to do something, they are a private enterprise, its their problem.

    What these ‘activists’ are asking for is that Private Enterprises stop doing things just because these people do not like it. And also please do remember THESE people never mention what makes them an expert on this issue or what their qualifications are to make a fuss.

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  • Apr 18, 2012 - 12:49PM

    I had already indicated this issue in my blog post on http://internetsgovernance.blogspot.com when the opportunists were beating their drums. There still are ways to go about this but no one wants to listen.

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  • Hashmi
    Apr 18, 2012 - 1:13PM

    Internet is not a cute little innocent information portal. It does not warrant complete freedom, control is needed.

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  • usman
    Apr 18, 2012 - 3:14PM

    good and must be implemented

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  • Apr 18, 2012 - 3:17PM

    The country which do not have control over their economy is now making full efforts for the so called internet censorship… Porn sites needs to be block but here there is going fishy in the name of blocking porn..

    I personally think they have partially control over the news channels but they are afraid of the people speaking freely against the govt in different blogs facebook etc.. They have no control over this, and this so called “internet censorship” will also be used for this purpose..

    although they have spent millions for this project and still after that people will use proxy sites to access porn.

    some thing fishy !!!

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  • Mir
    Apr 18, 2012 - 3:26PM

    Our government and bureaucrats will do easiest things like ban internet, jam phones, shut the cable, censor the media, they wont do anything to curb extremism,talibanisation,corruption etc. The terms blasphemous,national security,obscene, are so obscure and ambiguous that one thing which is blasphemous for one sect may not be for other, national security threat which could be percieved differently by Nationalist Balochs, Gilgitis, Pashtoons and Sindhis. And i dont know Veena malik is considered obscene or not. I think they are afraid of globalisation of social media activism, they are afraid of change brought by social media in middle east, they are afraid because they can’t govern they cant deliver, the system is already rotten and social media is catalyst to destroy this system. Social media has hastened this movement, they are afraid of change. They are afraid of US, they are afraid of THEMSELVES.

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  • S
    Apr 18, 2012 - 3:33PM

    What about corruption? It’s also “un- Islamic”‘ “objectionable”, “unethical” and “immoral”! Let’s introduce an automated filtering for corruption first! SORE LOSERS.

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  • Mir
    Apr 18, 2012 - 3:40PM

    I thought ZIA era is over……

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  • papoo piplia
    Apr 18, 2012 - 4:53PM

    what a stupid move!

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  • Pakistani
    Apr 18, 2012 - 5:21PM

    BAN all the porn websites ……save this country and the people

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  • Mariam
    Apr 18, 2012 - 8:42PM

    Blocking of pornographic content will get you nowhere, only the dvd markets’ business will boom.
    Whats important is to filter western agenda content thats all. Leave the rest be.
    This is frustrating and people will become more frustrated with blocked URL’s. How about revising news media agenda and filtering out subliminal messages and content thats demoralizing us in view of our leaders.

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  • akmal
    Apr 19, 2012 - 3:43AM

    Just another attempt by the government to control Information. They are scared of the rising power of the world wide web to expose corrupt governments.

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  • konaberwalla
    Apr 19, 2012 - 3:58AM

    What fools! You want to curtail your freedom and room for expression? I bet most of these people craving restrictions are underage kids with no curiosity of exploring the world, who have not yet grown out of mommy’s spoon feeding. You will regret this years from now – if anyone of you grows a brain of their own.

    Access to a particular website is voluntary, people visit the material out of their own will.
    People can decide for themselves what is right for them or not. It isn’t government’s business to deny me what I want to read (or view).
    Internet is a means of distribution, not the distributor.
    Cybercrime laws should be debated on and refined more to create clauses to prosecute incitement to violence.

    People will always find ways to access information. It may take a little longer, but it will happen. This is human nature. Instead of concentrating on what someone wants to read or say or think, the government should look into providing healthcare, education, and food to the people.

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  • sajjad ali noor
    Apr 19, 2012 - 6:54AM

    sajjad ali noor
    @Mariam:

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  • sajjad ali noor
    Apr 19, 2012 - 6:56AM

    send me our facebook id

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