Pakistan censors Internet out in the open

Many countries censor the Internet,but few spell out their intentions as explicitly as Pakistan.

Written by New York Times | Paris | Published: March 4, 2012 12:21 am

Many countries censor the Internet,but few spell out their intentions as explicitly as Pakistan.

In an effort to tighten its control over the Internet,the government recently published a public tender for the “development,deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking system.”

Technology companies,academic institutions and other interested parties have until March 16 to submit proposals for the $10 million project,but anger about it has been growing both inside and outside Pakistan.

Internet censorship is nothing new in Pakistan,which,like other countries in the region,says it wants to uphold public morality,protect national security or prevent blasphemy. The government has blocked access to pornographic sites,as well as,from time to time,popular services like Facebook and YouTube.

Until now,however,Pakistan has done so in a makeshift way,demanding that Internet service providers cut off access to specific sites upon request. With Internet use growing rapidly,the censors are struggling to keep up,so the government wants to build an automatic blocking and filtering system,like the “Great Firewall of China”.

While China and others that sanitize the Internet generally do so with little public disclosure,Pakistan is being surprisingly forthcoming about its censorship needs. It published its request for proposals on the Information and Communications Technology Ministry’s Research and Development Fund website and even took out newspaper advertisements to publise the project.

“The system would have a central database of undesirable URL’s that would be loaded on the distributed hardware boxes at each POP and updated on daily basis,” the request for proposals says,referring to uniform resource locators,the unique addresses of Web pages,and points of presence,or access points.

The tender details a number of technical specifications,including the fact that the technology “should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URL’s (concurrent unidirectional filtering capacity) with processing delay of not more than 1 milliseconds.”

Following the Arab Spring,which demonstrated the power of the Internet to help spread political and social change,Pakistan’s move to clamp down has set off a storm of protest among free-speech groups.

Opponents of censorship say they are doubly appalled because they associated this kind of heavy-handed approach more with the previous regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf than with the current government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

“The authorities are big fans of China and how it filters the Internet,” said Sana Saleem,chief executive of Bolo Bhi,which campaigns against Internet restrictions. “They overlook the fact that China is an autocratic regime and we are a democracy.”

“What makes this kind of censorship so insidious is that they always use national security,pornography or blasphemy as an explanation for blocking other kinds of speech,” Saleem said,adding that her site had been blocked for several months in 2010 when it made reference to a ban on Facebook.

To free-speech advocates in Pakistan,the government’s seeming insouciance about censorship is a particular cause for alarm. “No government has ever done this so publicly,” said Salem.

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