ISLAMABAD, March 15: A recent move by Information Communication Technology Research and Development Fund (ICTRDF) of the Ministry of Information Technology has got rights groups worried.
It has called for proposals to install a national level website filtering system which may be used to forward political agendas and curb freedom of expression.
The “National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System (NLUBS)” will help the government block websites systematically, much like the internet censoring methods adopted by Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments, according to one technology expert.
The advertisement calling for proposals to set up such a system was floated by the ICTR&DF on Feb 21 this year. ICTR&D Fund will be funding the project and a telecom regulator will be responsible for its implementation and operation.
The advertisement stated that the blocking system should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs (website addresses) with a processing delay of not more than one millisecond.
Though a number of questions were sent to the chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), Dr Mohammad Yaseen, through email, including for information about the cost of the server, but till filing of this report no response was received from him.
It is pertinent to mention that PTA has already blocked thousands of pornographic websites and those carrying blasphemous content on the orders of lower and high courts.
The government has also blocked some sites for carrying controversial content, including the website of Baloch Liberation Army.
Instances of government interference in internet use in Pakistan have historically affected mainstream websites too. In May 2010, the government blocked the famous social website, Facebook, on the orders of Lahore High Court for carrying blasphemous content. This ban was, however, overturned within a span of two weeks by the same court with a warning that any repeat of the incident on the social medium website would lead to a permanent ban on it in Pakistan. Despite this, estimates put the number of Facebook users in Pakistan at 50 million.
Based on such history of internet regulation, civil society representatives have expressed concern that installation of any censoring system might lead to filtration of many legitimate and useful sites.
The national convener for the Internet Service Providing Companies, Wahajus Siraj, when asked for comments, said: “Blocking pornographic websites and blasphemous content is a good move and we appreciate it. Even the installation of a filtering system is fair but what guarantee do we have that this filter will not be used by the government to block websites of media houses, political parties and bloggers in the future?”
He added: “Several legitimate sites are already blocked along with pornographic websites because they happened to be hosted on the same servers and there is no mechanism to unblock them.”
Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy, currently teaching at Lums, was similarly sceptical and said: “This is an attempt by the government to pressure people’s right to information. People know what is good and bad for them when using the internet and don’t need regulation.”
He asserted that the beauty of internet was the easy access to information from around the globe that it provides, but systems of blocking or filtering certain content give the control of determining what information is useful in the hands of one individual or organisation. “This is against the freedom of expression,” he declared.
“It should be the choice of an individual to decide how he or she uses the internet, and not the choice of the state or an organisation,” asserted Prof Hoodbhoy.
International law expert Ahmer Bilal Sufi added: “Pakistan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees freedom of expression for the people. And considering the installation of this blocking system, one can say that it is fair but its arbitrary use can be against the freedom of expression.”
Asfham Mushtaq, a political blogger, said: “After the installation of this national level filter, political blogging websites that are critical of the government or any critical international research think-tank that publishes reports against the government or its polices will be under threat of being blocked. This will affect our access to varieties of opinions and information.”