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Pakistan testing powerful Internet filtering software

Activists say online censorship targets secular, liberal voices while extremist websites remain largely unfiltered

Pakistani dealers use laptops at a shop at an electronic market in Quetta on May 20, 2010.
2010 AFP

In a nondescript, creeper-draped building in the capital of Islamabad, a small team of men is purging Pakistan's Internet. Shadowy government officials are blocking thousands of pages deemed undesirable, but they are not fast enough. So the government is now testing Canadian software that can block millions of sites a second.

Internet censorship helps shape the views of 180 million Pakistanis on militancy, democracy and religion. Online debates dissect attacks by U.S. drone aircraft, the uneasy alliance with the United States and prospects for peace with arch rival India. But activists say liberal voices are increasingly silenced while militants speak freely. They worry customized filters from the Canadian firm Netsweeper will only deepen that divide.

"Secular, progressive and liberal voices are being increasingly targeted," said Shahzad Ahmad, the founder of Bytes For All, which campaigns for Internet freedoms. "Anything can be banned without debate." An internet provider who declined to be identified said the number of banned pages doubled in the last five years, partly a reaction to cartoons or films offensive to Muslims.

Now the Pakistani government is ramping up its capacity for censorship. Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto, published a report in June showing that Pakistan was testing filtering software supplied by Netsweeper. Both the Pakistani government and Netsweeper have declined to comment.

In 2012, the government circulated a five-page document seeking filtering software, a move embraced by Pakistani Internet service providers who welcomed the assistance of an outside contractor to lighten the burden of censorship.

Following the announcement of the filtering grant, Wahajus Siraj, head of the national ISP association, told The Washington Post that opponents of new filtering software "don't fully understanding the concept of it."

"This is not new censorship," said Siraj. "It’s making the manual system more efficient."

Activists worry that the change is part of a larger clampdown on Internet freedoms. Bolo Bhi, an internet freedom group whose name means "Speak Up," said Pakistan wanted the strict online censorship practiced by its ally China.

About 42 million Pakistanis are online, the government says, and the Internet is one of the few places where they can speak freely, said Bolo Bhi director Farieha Aziz. Twitter, for instance, helps voters reach leaders directly.

"Now Pakistanis can get direct access to politicians," said Aziz. "Previously they were just on television, telling you stuff."

Bolo Bhi asked technology companies to refuse the bid, and many did so, but Netsweeper took the contract, Citizen Lab said.

Activists say tests run to install the filtering system led to the temporary blocking of sites like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. State lawyers have referred to the tests in a court case in which the government is being sued by free-speech activists. Many sites on human rights, news and religion are already permanently blocked.

"The Internet Pakistan is seeing is not the same as the rest of the world is seeing," said Ronald Deibert of Citizen Lab.

Pakistani officials decline to discuss Netsweeper, even with their own legislators.

"They told us they'd shelved it," said legislator Bushra Gohar, who raised the matter in the National Assembly. "There are violent groups operating openly in this country and they want to ban objectionable content?"

A slippery slope

Officially, only sites that are blasphemous, pornographic or threaten national security are banned. But activists fear a "slippery slope" effect by which censorship could gradually creep into the political and social spheres with the help of high-grade software.

Pages banned in recent months include a Facebook group wanting to end the death penalty for blasphemy, a band whose song mocked the military, a site tracking sectarian murders, and a cleric who has spoken against sectarian violence, according to an official list seen by Reuters.

Activists allege that the government is not consistently applying their declared censorship principles, citing the fact that extremist websites are rarely blocked online. Hate speech denouncing religious minorities like Shi'ites, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan's population, is freely available online. So are pages maintained by militant groups the Pakistani government has banned.

Lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani, who is suing the government on behalf of Internet freedom activists, said while some of the hundreds of web pages he had found blocked were pornographic, most were secular or sites belonging to religious minorities.

"I can't think of any religious extremist group that has been blocked," he said. "They are not blocking the guys who are going to come on the road and start burning things. They are not blocking the people who are inciting violence against religious minorities."

Last year, at least 325 Shi'ites were killed in Pakistan. And 200 more were killed in twin bombings this year.

The government does not release statistics, but the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan said about 4,500 URLs have been banned, including some websites like YouTube.

For their part, Pakistani government officials have insisted that more pervasive filtering might allow Pakistan to reopen sites like YouTube by blocking links to specific material and allowing the rest. The Google-owned video-sharing channel was blocked a year ago after clerics organized violent protests against an anti-Islam film posted on the site. Thousands of protesters armed with sticks and stones battled riot police in major cities.

In the meantime, censorship is theoretically decided by the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC), a secretive body comprising members of the security forces, religious leaders and chaired by a secretary from the Ministry of Information Technology. The secretary declined requests for an interview.

But the committee only meets a couple of times a year, and the authorities are directing hundreds of pages to be banned each month, an industry official said.

Sometimes the IMC retroactively approved bans from the Ministry of IT, headquartered on the fourth floor of the nondescript brick building, said a government official who was not authorized to speak to the media. He could not say who added sites to the blocked list in the first place.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

NOT BLOCKING HATE

 

Pakistani officials decline to discuss Netsweeper, even with their own legislators.

 

"They told us they'd shelved it," said legislator Bushra Gohar, who raised the matter in the National Assembly. "There are violent groups operating openly in this country and they want to ban objectionable content?"

 

Officially, only sites that are blasphemous, pornographic or threaten national security are banned. But activists fear a “slippery slope” effect by which censorship could gradually creep into the political and social spheres with the help of high-grade software.

 

Pages banned in recent months include a Facebook group wanting to end the death penalty for blasphemy, a band whose song mocked the military, a site tracking sectarian murders, and pages a cleric who has spoken against sectarian violence, according to an official list seen by Reuters.

 

Activists allege that the government is not consistently applying their declared censorship principles, citing the fact that extremist websites are rarely blocked online. Hate speech denouncing religious minorities like Shi'ites, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan's population, is freely available online. So are pages maintained by militant groups the Pakistani government has banned.

 

Lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani, who is suing the government on behalf of internet freedom activists, said while some of the hundreds of web pages he had found blocked were pornographic, most were secular or sites belonging to religious minorities. "I can't think of any religious extremist group that has been blocked," he said.

 

"They are not blocking the guys who are going to come on the road and start burning things, they are not blocking the people who are inciting violence against religious minorities."

 

Last year, for example, at least 325 Shi'ites were killed, including children shot on their way to school. About 200 more were killed in twin bombings this year.

 

The government does not release statistics, but the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan said about 4,500 URLs have been banned, including some websites like YouTube.

 

For their part, Pakistani government officials argue that more pervasive filtering might allow Pakistan to reopen sites like YouTube, by blocking links to specific material and allowing the rest. The Google-owned video-sharing channel was blocked a year ago after clerics organized violent protests against an anti-Islam film posted on the site. Thousands of protesters armed with sticks and stones battled riot police in major cities.

 

In the meantime, censorship is theoretically decided by the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC), a secretive body comprising members of the security forces, religious leaders and chaired by a secretary from the Ministry of Information Technology. The secretary declined requests for an interview.

 

But the committee only meets a couple of times a year, and the authorities are directing hundreds of pages to be banned each month, an industry official said.

 

Sometimes the IMC retroactively approved bans from the Ministry of IT - headquartered on the fourth floor of the nondescript brick building, said a government official who was not authorized to speak to the media. He could not say who added sites to the blocked list in the first place.

 

Al Jazeera with Reuters news agency

NOT BLOCKING HATE

 

Pakistani officials decline to discuss Netsweeper, even with their own legislators.

 

"They told us they'd shelved it," said legislator Bushra Gohar, who raised the matter in the National Assembly. "There are violent groups operating openly in this country and they want to ban objectionable content?"

 

Officially, only sites that are blasphemous, pornographic or threaten national security are banned. But activists fear a “slippery slope” effect by which censorship could gradually creep into the political and social spheres with the help of high-grade software.

 

Pages banned in recent months include a Facebook group wanting to end the death penalty for blasphemy, a band whose song mocked the military, a site tracking sectarian murders, and pages a cleric who has spoken against sectarian violence, according to an official list seen by Reuters.

 

Activists allege that the government is not consistently applying their declared censorship principles, citing the fact that extremist websites are rarely blocked online. Hate speech denouncing religious minorities like Shi'ites, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan's population, is freely available online. So are pages maintained by militant groups the Pakistani government has banned.

 

Lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani, who is suing the government on behalf of internet freedom activists, said while some of the hundreds of web pages he had found blocked were pornographic, most were secular or sites belonging to religious minorities. "I can't think of any religious extremist group that has been blocked," he said.

 

"They are not blocking the guys who are going to come on the road and start burning things, they are not blocking the people who are inciting violence against religious minorities."

 

Last year, for example, at least 325 Shi'ites were killed, including children shot on their way to school. About 200 more were killed in twin bombings this year.

 

The government does not release statistics, but the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan said about 4,500 URLs have been banned, including some websites like YouTube.

 

For their part, Pakistani government officials argue that more pervasive filtering might allow Pakistan to reopen sites like YouTube, by blocking links to specific material and allowing the rest. The Google-owned video-sharing channel was blocked a year ago after clerics organized violent protests against an anti-Islam film posted on the site. Thousands of protesters armed with sticks and stones battled riot police in major cities.

 

In the meantime, censorship is theoretically decided by the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC), a secretive body comprising members of the security forces, religious leaders and chaired by a secretary from the Ministry of Information Technology. The secretary declined requests for an interview.

 

But the committee only meets a couple of times a year, and the authorities are directing hundreds of pages to be banned each month, an industry official said.

 

Sometimes the IMC retroactively approved bans from the Ministry of IT - headquartered on the fourth floor of the nondescript brick building, said a government official who was not authorized to speak to the media. He could not say who added sites to the blocked list in the first place.

 

Al Jazeera with Reuters news agency

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