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Pakistan: Fighting the Great Firewall

Internet freedom and communication technology in Pakistan has struggled with numerous attempts of censorship, surveillance and at times a blanket ban. The recent spate has been the announcement by ICT R&D Fund under the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT), in newspapers and on their website, of a request for proposal (RFP) for national “URL filtering and blocking system”.

Ironically, the National ICT R&D Fund that describes it's core focus as a fund that promotes ”Use ICT as a tool for wealth creation and upward mobility for economically challenged groups of citizens and spread the ICT activities on a true national level”, is willing to spend $ 10 million on a “URL filtering and blocking system” 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 RFP as seen in Pakistani newspapers. Image courtesy EFF

The RFP as seen in Pakistani newspapers. Image courtesy EFF

Authorities have in the past used national security, blasphemy and obscenity as a pre-requisite for blocking content online. However, the process lack transparency, civil rights groups demanding transparency have been met with deafening silence. Several petitions have appeared online demanding the government reconsider its decision and put an end to censorship, people have used the platform to register their protest.

On the petition titled, Pakistan to stop the firewall, stop the blanket ban, put an end to censorship, citizens have registered their protests demanding the government to reconsider the decision:

Mirza Abeer from Karachi, Pakistan writes:
Freedom of information is our right! Take that away and people will finally revolt!!

Usman Masood from Lahore, Pakistan:
Do not put restrictions on the internet. We do not trust your members to be competent enough to know what is important.

Hamad Dar  from Islamabad, Pakistan:
By saying no to blanket ban, we're not only putting an end to censorship, encouraging freedom but also helping in saving Pakistan both technologically and politically.

For a country of 187 million people with only 20 million with Internet access, spending $ 10 million on a filtering and blocking systems could be extremely damaging:

Fazal Khan, Costa Mesa, CA, signed the petition and registered his protest:
Stop wasting the country's resources on useless things and actually do something for the benefit of the people who you represent.

Tariq Khan, Pakistan:
The Govt. should take into account the fact that it has been democratically elected and any ban on the Internet regardless of the pretext will only strengthen non-democratic and obscurantist forces in this country which will ultimately make the Government and political class more insecure and prone to any extra-constitutional threat. The answer to creating a more pluralistic democratic society lies in more access to information rather than blanket bans.



     Time line of E-regulations and censorship in Pakistan, Courtesy Bolo Bhi

Other's have found humor and satire as a way to register their protest:

Haroon Riaz, from Rawalpindi, Pakistan:
Dear Sir Blocking internet is not a good thing for anyone. If you consider yourself democratic, put a ban on bans. Sincerely yours. A citizen.

Shehryar Hydri, Islamabad, Pakistan:
Instead of filtering URL's why not just shut the internet. We were fine with letters and trunk calls to America. As it is, media freedom was a curse brought upon us by Musharaf, the enemy of PPP. Please ban all TV and Radio channels as well and just have the PTV Channels for us patriotic Pakistanis.

Mariam Bilgrami, Karachi, Pakistan:
I have a a request for proposal for a hack to the national “URL filtering and blocking system”. If we can't stop them, think one step ahead.

The deadline for the proposal is March 2, 2012, besides actively signing and tweeting the petition entrepreneurs and citizens have registered their protest on twitter comparing the URL filtering and blocking systems to SOPA:

@rrafiq:Clay Shirky: Why #SOPA #PIPA is a bad idea http://on.ted.com/APkO >>conversely why #Pakistan MoiT #censorship proposal is a bad idea #TED

@rahmamian: Headed China's way? A national firewall is absolutely dangerous for Pakistan. #internet #censorship #digitalactivism

@thekarachikid: Because Democracy is the Best Revenge, Pakistan seeks to build the Great Firewall of censorship http://ow.ly/9g3hU

@fouadbajwa: Great #Firewall of #Pakistan under construction to ban millions of websites urls #censorship http://ictrdf.org.pk/RFP-%20URL%20Filtering%20&%20Blocking.pdf #netfreedom #infopolicy

Civil society organizations have also suggested (see petition) that people should engage with international companies providing surveillance and censorship tools and get their CEOs to commit to to apply for the proposal, in the light of human rights violations.

The fear that this system will be used to curtail political dissent is not unsubstantiated. Pakistani authorities regularly block and filter out Baluchistan related content and sites run by Baluch activists under the notion of ‘national security'.

There has been no official list of the number of websites currently blocked by the government, except for data crowd-sourced by activists. Needless to say if the authorities succeed in implementation of the filtering and blocking system, a considerable number of voices will be silenced.

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