The Pakistani government has developed software that will enable comprehensive blocking of “objectionable” content online. This comes after advocates fought last year to keep Pakistan's Telecommunication Authority from contracting with technology companies to develop a nationwide filtering system.
Even now, Pakistan blocks a good deal of content online. The Toronto Sun, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed.com, pages on Wikipedia, and a host of other sites are inaccessible in the country. The best known of these is YouTube, which was blocked in Pakistan in September 2012 chiefly in reaction to the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” film clips that sparked outrage in many predominantly Muslim countries.
In March, Pakistani NGO Bytes For All brought a challenge of the ban to the High Court of Lahore, a case that is still ongoing, alongside a concurrent challenge in Peshawar, brought by advocate Mian Mohibullah Kakakhel.
Earlier this month, IT Minister Anusha Rehman made a preliminary announcement about the new system, saying it would allow the government to lift its nearly year-old ban on YouTube, leaving only “objectionable” videos blocked on the site.
Pakistani NGO Bolo Bhi (“Speak Up” in Urdu) has issued a statement demanding that government agencies respect the constitutional and universal human rights of Internet users in Pakistan and disable the filters immediately. An excerpt from their statement follows.
We as a civil society organization geared towards researched backed advocacy for policy change express great concern over the steps taken by the Ministry of IT, despite multiple attempts at informing the court, the Ministry and the public at large regarding the abuse of URL Monitoring, Filtering & Blocking System. The danger, as also pointed out by a Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) official in the ongoing court hearing regarding the YouTube ban, is that tampering with HTTPS traffic will have a detrimental effect on commerce and industry.
It is puzzling how the Ministry claims it has successfully tested such a system, when only recently PTA gave in writing to court that no system in Pakistan exists capable of filtering HTTPS traffic.
By deciding to proceed with its plans of installing filters, the Ministry of IT, through this decision has blatantly ignored fundamental rights of citizens, the extensive discussion regarding the dangers of filtering technology and the larger debate on due process currently taking place in courts.
We urge the Ministry of Information Technology:
- To bring clarity on the media reports
- To respect the constitutional rights of citizens of Pakistan
- To appear in court as has been required of the Minister and Secretary IT
- To engage with stakeholders and the court on this issue
- To disable the filters immediately
- To make informed decisions, keeping all stakeholders on board in the future
We urge PTCL:
- Not to provide these filters to the Ministry of IT given the human rights implications
- To disable these filters in light of human rights implications
- To follow the United Nations Principles of Business & Human Rights
- To take note and implement “know your customers” policy guide by the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Bolo Bhi Director Farieha Aziz was nominated to serve as Amicus Curiae in the Lahore case, providing expertise on policy and civil liberties aspects of the issue. To read the group's submissions to the court or learn more about the political and technical issues in play, visit Bolo Bhi's website. Global Voices Advocacy will continue coverage of this story in the coming days.