Wanted: Censor for Pakistan's Internet

Published Mar 08, 2012 10:31am

People using the Internet at a local cafe in Islamabad, Pakistan.—AP Photo

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is advertising for companies to install an Internet filtering system that could block up to 50 million Web addresses, alarming free speech activists who fear current censorship could become much more widespread.

Internet access for Pakistan's some 20 million Web users is less restricted than in many countries in Asia and the Arab world, though some pornographic sites and those seen as insulting to Islam are blocked. Others related to separatist activities or army criticism have also been, or continue to be, censored.

Few nations have so publicly revealed their plans to censor the Web as Pakistan is doing, however. Last month, the government took out newspaper and Web advertisements asking for companies or institutions to develop the national filtering and blocking system.

"They are already blocking a lot of Internet content, and now they are going for a massive system that can only limit and control political discourse," said Shahzad Ahmad, the director of Bytes for All Pakistan, which campaigns for Internet freedom. "The government has nothing to do with what I choose to look at."

The government doesn't currently list the sites it has blocked, or their number, or say who sits on the committee that decides what pages to shut down. Pakistan's Telecommunication Authority instructs the country's 50 Internet Service Providers to block sites. The ISPs, which receive their license from the PTA, are obliged to obey.

In November, the PTA ordered cell phone companies to block text messages containing a list of more than 1,500 English words it said were offensive. But the plan was dropped after public ridicule and complaints from cell phone companies about practicality.

The plan to censor the Internet comes amid unease over a set of proposals by a media regulatory body aimed at bringing the country's freewheeling television media under closer government control. With general elections later this year or earlier next, some critics have speculated the government might be trying to cut down on criticism.

The media proposals call for television stations not to broadcast programs "against the national interest" or those that "undermine its integrity or solidarity as an independent and sovereign country" or "contain aspersions against or ridicule the organs of the State."

Pakistan's Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan denied Wednesday that the government was seeking to curb the media.

"We want to see the media growing. We want to strengthen it," Awan said, emphasizing that the proposals were just that, and the government wouldn't implement them without the media's consent.

The government advertisements state it wants a system capable of shutting down up to 50 million Web addresses in multiple languages with a processing delay of not less than one millisecond.

The head of Pakistan's ISP association, Wahajus Siraj, said he supported the proposed system, saying his ISP and others in the association didn't have the time or money to take down the sites. He also said rights activists had nothing to worry about.

"They don't fully understanding the concept of it," said Siraj. "This is not new censorship. It's making the manual system more efficient. I respect their point of view, but decent freedom of speech should not be blocked."

Siraj, who sits on the board of the government-run technology fund seeking proposals for the blocking system, said there had been many expressions of interest to create the system, including from two Western firms. He declined to name them.

Websense Inc, a San Diego-based Internet security firm, has already said it is not bidding for the Pakistan project.

"We call on other technology providers to also do the right thing for the citizens of Pakistan and refuse to submit a proposal for this contract," it said in a statement. "Broad government censorship of citizen access to the Internet is morally wrong."

US technology companies have been criticized for helping foreign governments censor the Internet to their citizens. Cisco Systems Inc, which makes networking equipment that could be used in official efforts to monitor and control Internet use, is often cited; the company insists it does not provide any government with any special capabilities and cannot control what its customers do with the products.

Like in many Asian countries where pornographic materials are banned, Pakistan currently tries to block adult websites. It also seeks to censor what it sees as "blasphemous" content toward Islam, as other Muslim nations do.

In 2008, the government blocked YouTube because of anti-Islamic movies on the site; in 2010, it blocked Facebook for two weeks amid anger over a page that encouraged users to post images of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Other sites that have, or continue to be blocked, are those containing news and views from Baluchistan, a southwestern province where a separatist insurgency has simmered for years in the face of army crackdowns. There have been other cases where sites have been blocked apparently after they triggered the anger of members of the military and political elite.

Rollingstone.com has been offline since July last year, reportedly because it ran a short story critical of the amount of budgetary funds allocated to the army. Rollingstone.com didn't return e-mails seeking comment.

Asked for comment, the telecommunication authority sent a statement that explained the blocking system was being installed because the Pakistani people wanted a "ban on blasphemous and objectionable contents that were being used to harass, deface and blackmail the innocent citizens of Pakistan."

Blocking pornographic websites and those seen insulting to Islam is not unpopular in Pakistan; many would say it is obligatory under Islam. Many of the most high-profile blocks have been a result of court orders acting on petitions from members of the public.

"I'm with the government on this one. They have right the intention," said Ahmjad Alvi, founder of Brainnet, one of the country's first ISPs. "Think of the kids."


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Comments (30) Closed




M Ali Khan
Mar 08, 2012 04:37pm
"Think of the kids" No need to think of the kids sir. Let the parents take responsibility to nurture their children in a safe environment and help raise awareness on private matters without some 'sarkari order' to block content. this ban can and will block ANYTHING some paranoid official will consider "anti-state" to censor things they dont want the public to hear. leave the internet alone!
Asif
Mar 08, 2012 06:05pm
sir , isp providers must resrtict the contents on internet which are against the religion Islam . this step will save the culture and integrity of Pakistani Muslims . i dont know , why till now this step has not been taken yet. if not given importance will surely kill the concept of Islam and Sovereignty of Pakistan . we are under war to save our culture and principles of Islam. if this issue shall not be given importance then we dont need atomic energy etc . as a pakistani citizen, im still sure that we will loose the war against cultures , as steps which are under consideration now shall had been taken since the emergence of intenet as media inside Pakistan . Alaas !!!
Jabalultariq
Mar 08, 2012 07:09pm
I wonder what took the govt so long !!!! What about cable TV content ?
Naveed Lotia
Mar 08, 2012 07:43pm
Asif, you write that "....if not given importance will surely kill the concept of Islam and Sovereignty of Pakistan" Is a religion designed buy no less than God himself so weak that it will be killed or destroyed via the opinions of mere humans? Such a foolish idea! As for Pakistan, a state has to earn the respect and trust of its citizens for it to remain strong and united. Pakistan got split into 2 well before the age of the internet. Limiting freedom of speech is not healthy for a society but actually harmful for it because it does not allow the free exchange of ideas. Instead of living in a fools paradise, it is better that the people see the light. That is exactly what free speech does, decent or indecent. Else, be ready for further decay of Pakistani society.
Obaidullah Z Khan
Mar 08, 2012 08:33pm
What integrity of Pakistani Muslims are you talking about. Pakistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. There are only Muslims in Pakistan. But, no Islam. Islam is actiually present in the west where people don't lie, steal, cheat ot kill others the way it is done over in Pakistan. Grow up. Religion is as personal matter - not a matter of state. Not even God can help you if you think that by blocking a few porn sites you can protect the culture and religious values of a country.
Sayyar
Mar 08, 2012 09:41pm
What does culture and relegion has to do with Internet.
Amin
Mar 08, 2012 09:41pm
I totally agree with you. Life is already very difficult with all sorts of obscene ads finding their way into our emails. Pornography in any form should be totally censored / banned to make the internet a healthy environment.
Madan Mohan Joshi
Mar 08, 2012 09:57pm
The first letter echoes the oft repeated phrase 'Islam is in danger'. Can a religion which has survived for more than thousand year can suddenly become so fragile that you have to protect it by banning some websites? I feel Islam will get more strength if healthy criticisn instead of blind and dogmatic following of some rituals, are allowed. This religion which has astonished the human civilisation by its number of followers over the years will become more rational by criticism and analysis. But alas that may not happen by keeping all windows shut all around.
Nasser Ali Khan
Mar 08, 2012 09:59pm
This is an attempt for censorship, pure and simple. The powers to be are very afraid that the Arab Spring would very soon come to Pakistan. Inshallah it will and the social media is the major powerhouse to make it happen. The age of accountability is here and it is the public who will enforce it. Any censorship at home and workplace is the job of the parents and employers and the facility for it has always existed. The attempt by the government, and the armed forces to stifle public opinion shall definitely fail.
malik
Mar 08, 2012 10:41pm
Yea Islam in danger. I fail to understand why is our religion always in danger?
Sultan Ali
Mar 08, 2012 11:25pm
i Guess Govt. is trying to Block FaceBook as IK is getting all its supporter from FB, and disclosing the facts over internet :) time to think how Govt (zardari) think :)
Saajid
Mar 09, 2012 12:16am
"System capable of shutting down up to 50 million Web addresses in multiple languages with a processing delay of not less than one millisecond". This should terrify anybody who cares to see democracy and freedon of press in this country. A delay of one millisecond? This is not about pornography.
aizyv
Mar 09, 2012 01:14am
i think porn sites should be banned.on many occasions pakistan has been made fun of for being the country that vists porn sites the most and as an islamic state it should be banned.Also sites insulting islam should also be banned but not those which comes under 'against national interest' as we dont know who decides what is our national interest.
Blitzer
Mar 09, 2012 01:14am
One would think that our leaders would have better things to do than to block/censor internet access to common Pakistanis. It looks like they are done solving all other problems afflicting this country like crippling energy shortage, water scarcity, provision of healthcare and education, etc. Access to internet has recently been declared as a universal human right by the UN and any curb, censor or block on Internet or part thereof would be a direct attack on the freedom of speech and expression of the common Pakistani and we will resist and fight any such illegal foray with tooth and nail. And who gave these few people sitting in a PTA boardroom the mandate to allow or deny access to certain websites whether they have political commentary or different points of view or even adult material? Instead of shooting the messenger and stifling innovation, GoP should instead focus on turning Pakistan into an ICT powerhouse like India.
Jahiz
Mar 09, 2012 01:45am
Well said. In everything in Pakistan, we feel the need to control people through Government when we ourselves have seen the worst examples of when a Government uses laws to train and contain the citizenry. Let the parents take responsibility for their kids. Im very worried about how this might be used by the Government to restrict freedom of speech.
FIRDOZ
Mar 09, 2012 02:06am
EXCELLENT , WOOOOOOOOHAAAAAAAAAAAAAWOOOO that is the first step.
Shahid
Mar 09, 2012 02:29am
I appreciate this step specially to preserve our social values and the innocent minds of our kids. If its purpose is something other than the above mentioned, then i fully oppose it.
Naveed Hassan
Mar 09, 2012 03:51am
Why just internet blockage, why not ban on all type of technological, financial and educational cooperation with the filthy, infidel and immoral western world?
Bilal
Mar 09, 2012 03:58am
Dear Sir, I think you need to drop the internet excuse and look into what is the REAL cause of social and moral degrading. it starts from home, then education at schools/colleges. the shape of faith now a days is not because of the internet, it's because of what we practise at home and who we listen to in mosques. and the damage done by these "deeni" channels, Aalim Online in particular, these neem-hakeem are such a disgrace to the religion.
sam shaikh
Mar 09, 2012 05:24am
It is the mindset of Pakistanis that needs to be changed with right education and awareness blocking the technology will not help. If we take the technology away from the equation for a moment and look at the Pakistani society in general, it is uncivilized, Corrupt, filthy to the core. It is always about the people, technology is just a medium. Basic internet filters for kids are of course required with proper education.
maqsood butt
Mar 09, 2012 11:35am
it is very good step to block the wrong websites
MF
Mar 09, 2012 12:51pm
Why don't they block the whole internet and take us back to the stone-age. Is Islam religion so weak that it is threatened by some objectionable websites ? I don't think so. Come on guys, wake up.
osama ahmed
Mar 09, 2012 03:17pm
awh sounds good. it should be done.pornography should be banned because what is the good off watching it? we are Muslims n we shouldn't so it like that we use lot of site who did blasphemous but now today we are using these staff also?? where is our Muslims thoughts?? we don't deserve these type of cheapest things. we don't need it. government should have taken this step first. but now its a good they are thinking.
A Shah
Mar 09, 2012 03:34pm
This is good, we should banned all foreign tv and internet from Pakistan. This is the work of evil forces who are trying to corrupt our youth. We should only allow religious programs on TV and only allow islamic websites. The internet is work of the foreign hand to destroy islam.
Dr. Mudassir Asrar
Mar 09, 2012 03:39pm
WE SHOULD NOT BAN THESE WEB SITES OUR YOUTH IS SENSIBLE THEY CAN CHOOSE WHAT TO SEE AND WHAT NOT TO SEE. THIS MONEY SHOULD BE TRANSFERRED FOR ICT DEVELOPMENT SO THAT PAKISTAN IT INDUSTRY SHOULD EXCEL AND ACHIEVE A COMPETITIVE EDGE IN THE GLOBALMARKET
alina
Mar 09, 2012 04:00pm
very bad step. they should not be blocking everything.
Mir
Mar 09, 2012 06:39pm
There is high possibility of internet blackout in Pakistan, if any dictator uses this tool to shut the every opposition voice. Please keep in mind that we don't have good memories of censorship whether it is print media or TV channels and now on internet. Protest before it is too late.
Talha
Mar 10, 2012 02:13am
As long as they block pornographic websites, I am all for it. There is no argument against it! It will be like cleaning a wonder which is the internet of a filth!!!
khan
Mar 10, 2012 08:06pm
good step from the government the pornographic websites must be blocked because it corrupts the mind of our coming youth and. but by the way this not make me so much satisfied even it is very good step but v need to bring more change and the most important change is to develop our country....
G.A.
Mar 10, 2012 09:08pm
@A Shah - you seem to have no qualms about posting to this site in a foreign language using a foreign invention (computer and Internet that is). Did you acquire all these skills through Islamic textbooks. Ever ridden in a car, plane or a train? All foreign inventions. Are 1.2 Billion Muslims really that insecure or is it just you?