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Rudderless: Pakistan’s impossible attempt to block 400,000 porn sites continues

Scores of sites with no 'offensive' content included in massive ban list
Updated Jun 02, 2017 12:45pm

In January this year, the federal government kicked off one of the largest online censorship sprees Pakistan has witnessed in the last decade: the blocking of over 400,000 websites termed ‘offensive’.

The cue to initiate this mass blocking of sites came from a Supreme Court order for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to: “take remedial steps to quantify the nefarious phenomenon of obscenity and pornography that has an imminent role to corrupt and vitiate the youth of Pakistan”.

The implementation of the ban is an ongoing process being carried out by upstream providers PTCL and Transworld – both carrying Pakistan’s internet traffic through undersea cables – and by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who have been ordered to enforce the ban by the PTA.

But the list of 429,343 websites, obtained by Dawn.com from an ISP source close to the ongoing process has been found to be flawed, as scores of sites with no pornographic content are included in the list.

Not ‘obscene’

A series of scans conducted by Dawn.com across only some parts of the exhaustive list uncovered hundreds of sites that contain no pornographic, ‘smut’, ‘obscene’ or ‘offensive’ content.

These sites (representing just the tip of the iceberg of safe sites listed to be blocked) vary in content from entertainment to education, medical services and hospitals, fashion sites, hotels, travel agencies, food stores and many more.

The list included innocuous links such as:

In addition to these, Dawn.com found thousands of domains listed ‘to-be-banned’ host no content at all, but are simply available for purchase from domain registration companies.

In a third category, many sites are found to be serving a ‘404 Not Found Error’ i.e. the sites were not be found on the server, indicating that the owners had either removed or moved the sites in entirety.

Aside from these erroneous/redundant inclusions to the ban list, many sites have been blocked as per government orders, displaying the standard ban message.

However, such blocks are inconsistent, dependent on the ISP being used to access the links.

The largest and most popular website to be blocked among the list is micro-blogging platform tumblr.com. Although the domain itself is listed to be blocked — ending access to the entire site — many individual tumblr accounts are also inexplicably listed to be banned separately.

Blocking it all

Like Tumblr, most of the list comprises of sites blocked at the domain level.

This means all pages hosted on the domain would be blocked, rather than blocking specific content or pages hosted on a domain.

One explanation for such blanket bans is the relative effectiveness – both in terms of cost and technology – of blocking an entire domain over individual urls.

While it is not easy for high traffic domains to relocate themselves, blocked urls can easily be moved to a different url, while blocked social media accounts can similarly be relaunched under a different name and link.

This applied in the YouTube ban case, where the government was unable to block hundreds of links to the blasphemous movie trailer “Innocence of Muslims”, resulting in the ‘cheap’ solution of blocking the entire video platform.

As CEO of Nayatel and Convener of Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) Wahaj Sirah explains:

“ISPs typically use a web filtering solution to block websites. The system is loaded with a black list of domains or websites categorised by companies who specialize in this business. One can simply subscribe to these lists and feed them into the web filtering software.” He adds that, “The companies typically don't share their methodology but they are regularly being updated to add new websites and sometimes to correct the mis-categorization of websites.”

The mis-categorization in the current list and the blocking of unpurchased domains or those displaying no content can be explained by the nature of the internet, which is constantly in a state of flux.

As IT experts point out, domains, especially those with low volumes of traffic, follow a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ life-cycle. As such, any block list would include domains that no longer exist, with the number of such domains increasing with the passing of time. Any implemented blocks would then need to be revisited again and again to maintain an accurate list.

High cost

Blocking websites is not a cheap exercise.

According to Siraj, “These kind of solutions are expensive and the cost is proportionate with the size of internet traffic it needs to handle...blocking these many websites is not feasible because it would have a major impact on the flow of Internet traffic.”

As one IT expert who wishes to remain anonymous explained, “​It may be cheap and easy to block domain​ names from a technical point of view​​, but what is costly ​and time consuming ​is the ​compliance framework itself. Legal orders, communication, corrections etc.”

Add in the manpower it would require to scour the entire internet for specific urls that are assumedly ‘offensive for Pakistan’ such as the inclusion of Monica Lewinski’s TED Talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/monicalewinskythepriceof_shame) and the effort goes from costly to impossible.

In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in February, the PTA itself expressed helplessness in blocking all offensive content and pornographic websites on the Internet.

These problems, along with many other issues tied to the banning of sites, render such an exercise futile and dangerous, digital rights activists argue.

Rights denied

Activists point to a different cost of blocking sites en masse: losing out on access to information.

“The problem is that the blocks are based on keywords. So when the PTA aim to block porn they won't just block porn, they will end up blocking other content as collateral damage,” Founder and Director of the Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Daad says. “There have, for example, been instances of medical journals and research papers being blocked because they contained the word ‘breast’ or ‘sex’ in them.”

“This [blocking] approach to addressing the availability of pornographic material online is dishonest,” says Farieha Aziz, Director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights. “PTA has time and again admitted before courts that it is not possible to block anything on the Internet one hundred per cent, so why are they ordering the blocking of over 400,000 urls? It is incumbent upon them to honestly admit that it will never be possible to remove everything someone deems inappropriate from the internet. They should stop misleading courts and the public by offering false solutions.”

Both Daad and Aziz feel the PTA should not regulate the internet by blocking sites.

“I may have felt differently if what they were doing was blocking access to child pornography, but that has never been something they have exclusively focused on...instead they [PTA] are acting like the moral police,” Daad states.

In Aziz’s opinion, an alternative to blocking sites has always existed:

“Adults need to educate themselves about existing [free or paid] software and settings they can employ to manage their online presence and spaces better. Moreover, ISPs can offer value-added services that allow users to determine what content is accessible on their connected devices and what their children view – without breaching people’s privacy or pre-deciding for them. Yes, let's discuss ethics. But not through heavy-handed regulation.”

Despite repeated attempts, PTA did not comment on the issue.


Illustrations by Fahad Naveed

Text of the Supreme Court order

Scan of the order is below the text

There are no two opinions on the point that information should be beamed in through satellite, internet or any other means of transmission. Information in every field of the world has become so widespread that any person interested in any field of information can acquaint himself with latest developments taking place anywhere and in any corner of the world.

Such means of information should be encouraged and even amplified so that the people who do not have the means and resources to go abroad and acquire it may have it at their doorsteps. But this information has to be qualified. It cannot be extended to include every nasty and nefarious phenomenon which has the potential to corrupt and vitiate the youth. This aspect of the subject has to be thought over holistically so that the negative part of the information may not spoil our young generation.

Many reports have been submitted in the Court giving partial and piecemeal view of the problem and even remedial measures therefore, but what we have is too modest and meager to stem the tide of obscenity and pornography.

The learned Additional Attorney General for Pakistan has undertaken to submit a complete report in his behalf. Barrister Zafar Ullah, ASC, MR. Muhammad Akram Sheikh, Sr. ASC, Mr. Taufic Asif, ASC, are also on the board in these matters. They are expected to assist the Court as to how this hydra-headed monster can be doomed to extinction once and for all without affecting the channels transmitting positive and constructive information.

Let all the learned ASCs submit a concise statement in this behalf suggesting ways and means to fight this menace. The learned ASC for PEMRA and Director General, PTA are also directed to submit a report enabling the Court to take some effective measures in this behalf. Needful be done within a fortnight. Re-list after everybody has given their input. Both the matters be clubbed together.

Sd/-Ejaz Afzal Khan, J | Sd/-Qazi Feaz Isa, J

The 50 links below are just a small sample of sites Dawn.com compiled from the PTA block list that contains no pornographic, ‘smut’, ‘obscene’ or ‘offensive’ content.

The sites have been listed to provide some insight into the mechanism for selection of domains to be banned, and the many forms of errors or 'false positives' that occur in mass-scale blocking and filtering. The complete list of 429,343 websites set to be blocked can be downloaded here. Warning: the list contains links that include offensive words.

  1. The Food Network foodtelevision.com

  2. International job search site search-career.com

  3. Musical instruments store 6degreesmusic.com

  4. Disney cartoons site http://cinderella.com

  5. Tungshin Hospital Malaysia tungshinhospital.com

  6. Aerial cinematography hardware aerialcinema.com

  7. Adele fan site adelefan.com

  8. London-based shoe company Michele Hartmann http://mhshoes.com/london/

  9. Las-Vegas hotel The Mirage www.mirage.com

  10. Digital prints of famous art paintingforyou.com

  11. Microsoft’s webcams purchase page http://www.microsoft.com/accessories/en-us/webcams

  12. Fashion site http://www.agirlsworld.com/

  13. Garis Agency PR company site http://nationalpublicist.com/

  14. Spice Girls band unofficial blog http://spicegirls.com

  15. Celebrity hairstyles site beautifulhairstyles.com

  16. Grocery story http://www.yummy.com/

  17. miVIP Surgery Center http://www.mivipsurgery.com/

  18. Child play-area builders site http://www.playtime.com/

  19. US-based Delamo Hospital http://delamohospital.com/

  20. Afghanistan National Taekwando Association http://www.itf-afghanistan.com/

  21. Indian international-shipping commerce site http://www.netcherries.com/

  22. Peach products site peaches.com

  23. Power and engineering industry services site http://ktekintl.com/

  24. Languages course website http://dialogue.com

  25. Photography site photogenic.com

  26. Oceanside Clinic http://oceansidemedicine.com/

  27. Window blinds and window covering company peekaboo-icu.com

  28. Gifts website http://www.fun.com/

  29. Book sales and recommendations site nwpbooks.com

  30. Photography services site http://www.silverstarpictures.com/

  31. Live TV/radio smartphone app http://pridenation.com/

  32. Open source/freeware site onlinefreeware.com

  33. New York Sharks football site nysharksfootball.com

  34. Web developer http://www.miandadrahim.com/

  35. Food market http://www.4thstreetmarket.com/

  36. Website hosting site https://www.avissoft.com/

  37. Science site http://www.noisy.com/

  38. Official Naomi Judd celebrity site http://naomijudd.com/

  39. Neon TV production house http://www.neontv.com/

  40. iOS development portal http://futureworldtech.com/

  41. Restaurant marketing site restaurantambassador.com

  42. History site about the Titanic search.titanic.com

  43. Encrypted email service hush.com

  44. Journey tribute band site journeytribute.com

  45. Adoption.com redirect site internationaladoptions.com

  46. Shoes reviews site http://iheels.com/

  47. Movie reviews and news portal http://cinema.com/

  48. Cold Spoon air conditioners http://coldspoon.com/

  49. The Federation of Indian Publishers federationofindianpublishers.com

  50. Country music news site countrywesternmusic.com