KARACHI: 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 porno-graphy 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 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: Disney cartoons site cinderella.com; London-based shoe company Michele Hartmann (http://mhshoes.com/london/); Las-Vegas hotel The Mirage (www.mirage.com); Microsoft’s webcams purchase page (http://www.microsoft.com/accessories/en-us/webcams); Garis Agency PR company site (http://nationalpublicist.com/); Spice Girls band unofficial blog (http://spicegirls.com); US-based grocery story http://www.yummy.com/; miVIP Surgery Center (http://www.mivipsurgery.com/); US-based Delamo Hospital (http://delamohospital.com/); Indian international-shipping commerce site (http://www.netcherries.com/); power and engineering industry services site (http://ktekintl.com/); languages course website (http://dialogue.com).

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: “Surf Safely! This website is not accessible. The site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership from within Pakistan on the instructions of PTA”. 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 sites blocked at the domain level i.e. 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 Siraj 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’ lifecycle. 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/monica_lewinsky_the_price_of_shame) and the effort goes from costly to impossible.

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. “The 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.”

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2016

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