As the world celebrates the 25th birthday of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, the fight for an open and free internet gains more momentum. Although the openness – and scrutiny – of the internet has always been a cause for concern for digital rights advocates, things got pretty messy after Edward Snowden’s (ongoing) leaks about NSA and GCHQ’s snooping tactics.
Freedom of expression seemed an attainable ideal through the internet, but governments and large corporations don’t seem to be very pleased. Although the Pakistani government may not have the capabilities of a super power to snoop into other countries’ internal communications, it has taken measures to censor dissenting views locally.
Categories of censorship
The government of Pakistan was censoring online spaces even when internet usage wasn’t that common among Pakistanis. The pre-emptive filtering had started as early as 2006, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the ban of around 1000 websites for carrying blasphemous, pornographic and offensive content.
Pakistan has seen reactive and proactive causes of censorship under two broad categories – religion and sovereignty. While reactive causes get more media space and international attention, it is often the proactive censorship that is both vastly (and secretly) implemented and troubling for users.
The government of Pakistan pre-emptively blocks blasphemous and pornographic content. For an Islamic state, this seems to be the defacto way of policymaking. The proactive censorship of dissenting political views which are perceived to be against the “state sovereignty and national security” is also actively practiced. The list of “obscene” words to be filtered in text messages was a pre-emptive effort by authorities to safeguard moralities (never implemented). Banning of political websites, such as Baloch Hal (www.thebalochhal.com), progressive Urdu blog Roshni 1(roshnipk.com), and various other sites related to separatist movements in Balochistan and Sindh also come under proactive filtering.
The reactive censorship mostly occurs with websites popular among the masses. The case of the Facebook ban in 2009, and the YouTube ban of September 2012 are both cases of reactionary filtering. However, unlike most cases of reactionary censorship that are lifted after a period of time, YouTube remains blocked till date. Cyber activists have retaliated against attempts at censorship plenty of times, but more so with the YouTube case. The government seems to be unmoved by the now internationally famous Lahore High Court YouTube case, and the Minister of State for IT, Anusha Rahman, keeps postponing her presence at the hearing.
A wide range of agencies are involved in the censorship of online content, making the process opaque at best. PTA and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), under the control of Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) and Inter-Ministerial committee for Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) are the responsible bodies for filtering and blocking content in Pakistan. The IMCEW, which reportedly comprises various representatives of ministries and Intelligence agencies, evaluates websites and the directives are then sent to the PTA through MoIT. PTA then disseminates the directives to ISPs. However, according to recent reports, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is also responsible for blocking and monitoring grey traffic without any legal mandate.
Apart from that, individuals and groups also seem to have a say in censorship; filing petitions can possibly result in a court issuing directives to the ministry to enact bans on content. Netizens have also witnessed cases where some high authority figure has issued orders to ban (or remove the ban of) a certain site. Case in point, Twitter’s blockage in May, 2012 when the ban was lifted after the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani ordered to unblock the social networking site. In various rulings, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has also ordered PTA to block certain websites.
It is assumed that PTA maintains a list of sites to filter; however, the details of such a list are not in the public space. No guidelines describing the reasons of particular censorship cases, bodies involved, or mechanisms employed are made publicly available.
How do authorities block content?
Authorities can censor and block URLs through the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE). Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are then required to carry out these directives issued by the PTA. In the absence of conforming to these directives, ISPs can have their licenses suspended.
In 2007, a press release published on PTA’s website detailed the agreement between Inbox Technologies, developed by the infamous NARUS, for a system that would give the authorities the capability to monitor and block grey traffic at the IP level.
While the mechanisms were largely unknown, Pakistani web spaces witnessed a civil society outcry when a tender was advertised by the government body, National ICT R&D Fund, asking for proposals for a national internet firewall in 2012. The proposed National URL Filtering and Blocking System would be capable of URL filtering and blocking from domain to sub-folder, file and file type levels. The proposal asked for a system having each hardware box capable of handling a block list of up to 50 million URLs within a delay of one millisecond.
In 2013, Citizen Lab found that Netsweeper internet-filtering products have been installed at a national level in Pakistan. The technology is implemented to filter content for political and social purposes and has been actively used to censor content on an ISP-wide level. The Canada-based company’s products were supplied to Pakistan’s largest telecommunication company PTCL which also operates at the PIE points. In October the same year, Grey Traffic Mitigation System (GTMS) became operational to automatically block those Internet Protocol (IP) addresses which are not in the authorised white list.
Laws cited for censoring content
Several provisions from Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act, 1996 provide support for censorship of the content that comes under the broader categories of national security and religious sentiments. Section 31 (d) of the Act creates criminal penalties for dissemination of information which can be considered false, indecent, or obscene. This Act has been used throughout the years to justify blanket bans on international websites. Article 19, an international organisation that works for freedom of expression and information, also dissected the PTA Act and found the legislation to be vague and giving open-ended powers to authorities that violate freedom of expression and other human rights. The Act has also been used to ban and block all internet encryption in the name of anti-terrorism.
While international laws allow limits on expression to protect public morals, this particular provision is elusive and can include a vast amount of data as obscene and indecent. This provision was used in November, 2011 when PTA published a list named “Implementation – Content Filtering through SMS” of obscene words in English and Urdu, requiring telecommunication companies to filter text messages containing those words.
Two particular Articles from the PTA Act specifically relevant to censorship of content considered detrimental to national security are, Article 57(ag) which authorises the government to set rules on “enforcing national security measures”; and Article 8(2)(c) allowing the Federal Government to issue decrees on “requirements of national security”.
While Section 54 (2) (3) of the PTA Act doesn’t apply to censorship on content, it authorises the government to shut down all communications in an emergency – the suspension of cellular services on almost every national/religious holiday comes under this provision.
Apart from the PTA Act, Section 99 of the Pakistan Penal Code is also used to censor content on digital spaces that is considered prejudicial to the ‘national interest’. This section helps the state to justify filtering what it considers to be anti-military, blasphemous, and anti-state content.
Another most used provision of the Pakistan Penal Code on digital spaces is section 295-A, which forbids “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written”. In May 2010, we saw authorities blocking Facebook after the social networking site hosted a page called Everybody Draw Muhammad Day; the page showed drawings and caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). During the same year, another seventeen websites were blocked for hosting content considered offensive to Muslims. So far, the majority of bans occurs under blasphemy provisions and are considered obscene or offensive to religious moralities.
The Monitoring & Reconciliation of International Telephone Traffic Regulations 2010 (MRITT) is used to block “mechanisms which conceal communication”. This regulation is applicable to all the instances where Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were blocked and mandates blocking of any traffic (encrypted or not), including voice and data, originating or terminating in Pakistan. The recent bans on the popular VPN services, Spotflux and Hotspot Shield come under this regulation. The two encryption services were primary tools for users who wanted to circumvent Internet censorship and access YouTube and any other blocked website(s). MRITT is capable of justifying any bans on VoIP services like Viber and Skype as well.
Several civil society organisations working on policy making for better digital rights bills voice the hurdles they face because of the vagueness of and terminologies used in laws passed. The lack of transparency and legal and judicial rigidness is a true testimony of the Pakistani state’s eagerness to police netizens, and the society in general.