Why filtering the internet is a bad idea

What China with innumerable resources and finances has not been able to achieve, Pakistan thinks it can.

Farieha Aziz August 28, 2013
The writer is one of the directors at Bolo Bhi and has previously worked at Newsline

It is not about YouTube, just like it was never about Facebook in 2010. The issue was never limited to the reopening of particular platforms which were accessed through the use of proxies by Pakistanis despite the bans in place. The issue has always been of governance, of mandates and of ad-hoc, of non-transparent decision-making that lacks accountability.

The process for blocking — on paper at least — is as follows. The Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) convenes to reach a decision. This decision is communicated as a directive by the Ministry of Information, Technology and Telecom (MoITT) to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The PTA issues orders to internet service providers (ISPs) and it is at the ISP level that the blocking takes place. The IMCEW and the MoITT are responsible for policymaking, the PTA for enforcement. The ISPs simply comply.

Decisions are reached and imposed. Who is on the IMC — other than the various ministries and agencies — and what its decision-making process entails remains unknown. There is no public disclosure or documentation of the decisions, neither is public input taken into account. The only input, it seems, that is taken into account is that of violent mobs and law-breakers. And there is no way of challenging the decision other than going the court route.

Also, this process has been known to be hijacked by vested interests who, by sheer clout, are able to override it and ensure their own decisions are implemented — at whichever level.

Time and again, Pakistan’s internet users have been subjected to bans and blockades. Always, these decisions have been arbitrary as has been the manner of implementation. In the past, ISPs have acted as whistle-blowers for outing political censorship. And this, in fact, has been the only disclosure regarding decisions made behind closed doors.

But what happens if state-level filters are installed? Since the first day in office, Minister of State Anusha Rahman has maintained that as soon as filters are in place, YouTube will be reopened. According to the minister, filters will do the needful — block the video but provide access to the platform. Repeatedly, the ministry and others in government have been apprised of the dangers of filtering. But what’s really surprising is how the ministry seems to have found a solution in a few weeks time, just as the next court hearing is upon them.

It is pertinent to mention that twice the minister and the secretary IT were told to appear in court but excused themselves. The objective was for the political leadership to get involved, hear what everyone had to say and then take steps to resolve the issue. But the pursuit of filters displays a disregard for any input other than their own. While the court has not reached a conclusion on the YouTube case yet, it has raised the question as to why attempts to block should be made, when they can’t guarantee 100 per cent results; should there not be another solution? This was arrived at after hearing state and non-state actors extensively on the policy and technology aspects of the issue.

A solution to address the YouTube ban and similar issues has been pending for months, years, in fact, as the same challenge presented itself when Facebook was banned in 2010. According to the PTA’s submission to court, no system exists in Pakistan that can block HTTPS URLs, which is why particular links to the video could not be blocked, but the whole domain had to be. How has this system suddenly been unearthed by the ministry? And why, against the cautioning of civil society and experts, who have consistently maintained it will cause a huge breach of privacy and compromise online safety and security, is it being pursued? Accepting filters to reopen YouTube will be an extremely damaging compromise if it is made, much worse than the blocking of one platform.

To date, manual methods have been employed to achieve blocking. What happens when ISPs are also taken out of the picture? If filters are installed, would they be at the gateway level? According to statements issued by the ministry, PTCL is providing it with the technology for free, for a period of one year. Where does it intend to install this system? At the gateway level or at landing stations where internet traffic enters the country? If government-owned landing stations are given the sole right to operate the mechanism, who is to check what more than ‘objectionable’ — and whose criteria of objectionable — is taken down? And what of compromised communication security? Who becomes privy to everything one says or does on the internet?

What China with innumerable resources and finances has not been able to achieve, Pakistan thinks it can. As rapidly as blocking technology evolves, so do circumvention tools. Access through proxies has proved this much. Is it justified then to spend millions on technology that is easy to sidestep in the first place? Also important to remember is that China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not models to emulate, not if Pakistan is a democratic country and the present government intends for it to remain so. What China, Iran and Saudi Arabia do is in the capacity of a non-democratic set-up. Democracies don’t allow for authoritarian mindsets that decide and impose decisions even if they override citizens’ rights. So, either Pakistan is a democracy, or it is not. And if it is, then democratic processes must be followed and rights must be protected.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2013.

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Farieha (Author) | 9 years ago | Reply

Responding to some comments at length. I say what I have after spending months getting to the bottom of the issue by speaking to policy-makers, technology experts, citizens etc. Nevertheless, it's fine and you don't need to take my word for it, so go ahead and do some digging and research for yourself and falsify or verify some of the claims I have made.

For starters, the gentleman who said NSA has been able to neutralize SSL and TSL so why can't PTA. For one, what the NSA has done is not a good thing - that would be apparent through the huge uproar against the PRISM programme. Secondly, the way they attempted to neutralize it is by gaining access to keys through the companies directly; not breaking in. Either way, it is a bad practice that compromises user security. If anything, NSA is to be viewed as a terrible example.

As for the China example, view it from two perspectives. First, from the technology perspective. Yes, services are blocked in China and the Firewall prevents access. However, does that prevent access 100%? No. Read up and you will find how the Firewall of China has been circumvented. The second argument is that the governance model of China is not of a democracy. Sure, you can say Pakistan is no democratic country either, but on paper it is. So you're going to need to change its governance model first to say it is not a democracy and that democratic principles should not be applied. Therefore, for the simple reason that Pakistan is a democracy and certain democratic need to be in place - even if they are not - implies you cannot follow in the footsteps of a communist regime nor of a theocracy or monarchy. Neither can you take or justify the actions they take and apply them here.

Both China and the USA have far greater resources in terms of man-power and money, to attempt to do such things. Is this where we want to put our money? Also, don't we hate following the US? Then why idolize NSA?

Yes blocking takes place all over the world, but because the world does, so should we? And are we comparable to the rest of the countries in the world by any standards?

Those alleging that I have no technical knowledge and so should not be commenting on technology issues. That's okay. But have you been listening to what technical experts have been saying? Have a look at these two resources and that should tell you how SSL/TSL work and what are the risks if breached: http://luxsci.com/blog/how-does-secure-socket-layer-ssl-or-tls-work.html & http://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-iab-filtering-considerations-03#section-5.

Quickly to address the point about gateways. To date, blocking takes place at the ISP level. However, according to Ministry, PTCL is providing filters. PTCL is one of the gatekeepers - we have two. Them and TWA. All Internet traffic comes to these two landing stations and from there bandwidth is distributed to other service providers. If filters are installed at the gateways, what you will get it a centrally filtered Internet. No directives will be passed on to smaller ISPs to carry out blocking.

Now here is the connection between web-censoring and web-monitoring. When you block HTTP traffic, it is fairly simple and no covert methods are required. This has been happening so far. The problem starts with HTTPS which is encrypted traffic. Beyond .com you do not know what appears in another person's browser. The long link (i.e. https.youtube.com/734785369/u47A/) is mostly unique to a session and not known to a third party except for the user and the domain. The only way knowing is by breaking through the encryption by waging a man-in-the-middle attack, which basically means you pose as the intended recipient even though you are not. Communication is then intercepted by third parties. Attempts to filter HTTPS traffic will do just this, and will not simply be limited to youtube, but HTTPS traffic as a whole - email, e-banking etc. That is where the concern lies. Because then one's communication can easily be intercepted, there can be identity thefts, credit card information can be stolen etc. Here is something explains this in very layman terms (not by me but a techie/game developer: http://bolobhi.org/understanding-how-https-works-with-ahmed-bilal-uncle-tipu/)

About Intranet, if you want to separate yourself from the world, sure go ahead. But then what is the point of the Internet. Think beyond products, services. The wealth of knowledge - yes surprise, surprise: there are actually good and useful things on the Internet too - that platforms such as youtube host, such as educational content etc, will not be accessible. And if you think there isn't any content worth mentioning or watching, do have a look at this: http://bolobhi.org/bolo-bhis-submission-to-court-in-youtube-case-august-2-2013/

You cannot separate the policy and technology from one another. Both go hand in hand. A policy that is not technologically possible or viable doesn't work. Also a policy which does not bear in mind the balance required by law, also does not work.

No one is saying sentiments should not be respected and solutions should not be looked into. But they have to be measured in terms of feasibility money wise and legally. Instead of blocking at the state-level, why not block at the home-level. Empower every household to do so. This also is not my non-techie view, but a techie's suggestion for an alternate solution: http://techies.pk/articles/lifting-the-youtube-ban-in-pakistan-a-possible-solution/

By all means criticise. But also point out where something is wrong and back it up with some credible research and examples.

hassan J | 9 years ago | Reply

@Imran I agree with you the author has little knowledge about a topic that is technology based. She mixes up web censoring with web monitoring.Moreover she has no idea about gateway level and land stations level of internet and that they do not effect what so ever is being filtered as it is more a matter of policy than the technological implementation.

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