UPDATE: National Assembly Member Bushra Gohar confirmed to the The Express Tribune that the Pakistani Ministry of Information Technology will withdraw its plans to subsidize a national blocking and filtering system. An official statement is due tomorrow.
Since we first wrote about Pakistan’s Telecommunications Authority’s (PTA) plan to create a national censorship and blocking system, there has been a global outpouring of criticism against the project. Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani advocacy group, along with the Business Human Rights Resource Centre, has publicly called on companies not to submit a proposal and to denounce the project entirely. While some have responded, a few companies have remained silent even amidst massive petitioning to urge them to join others in rejecting the plan.
The corporations that have so far come out against the initiative released statements that they do not intend to apply for the request for proposal. As we reported last week, Websense, which has recently become a model company in their dedication to transparency and human rights, has been leading the way by both rejecting the plan and calling other companies to also refuse to submit a proposal to enact mass censorship in Pakistan. They wrote:
Broad government censorship of citizen access to the Internet is morally wrong. We further believe that any company whose products are currently being used for government-imposed censorship should remove their technology so that it is not used in this way by oppressive governments.
Sandvine, Verizon, and Cisco also announced they would reject the initiative, and we laud these companies for doing so. Several companies, however, have not responded to Bolo Bhi’s letter. These include Huawei, a China-based networking and telecommunications corporation, and US tech-security companies Bluecoat and McAfee. It is not known whether they are applying for the grant.
According to the Washington Post, Pakistani Internet service providers (ISPs) and other Internet intermediaries welcome the project. The ISPs claim it would free them of the responsibility from having to spend the resources to do the blocking and filtering themselves, as the head of the national ISP association, Wahajus Siraj has argued. He also says that opponents of the initiative have nothing to worry about: “They don’t fully understanding the concept of it. This is not new censorship. It’s making the manual system more efficient.” Siraj further added that two Western-based companies have shown interest in submitting a proposal, though he would not name them to the press.
Nighat Dad of Bytes for All rightfully points out that this initiative does warrant considerable concern. She writes that Pakistan seems to be following in the footsteps of China’s censorship policy, and down a dark path of regressive state policies:
Information and communication technology is the driving force of today’s world. Rather than impinging on citizens’ privacy, the government of Pakistan should focus on training people in digital security to enable them to protect themselves and their children. Religious and cultural intolerance can only be increased by cutting people’s access to communication with the rest of the world. Enriching inter-cultural, inter-ethnic programs and investing taxpayer’s money in basic education and health will give us much better long-term results. Banning what it deems to be “pornographic” sites only shows that the government considers the people to be infantile, vulnerable and stupid.
EFF commends those companies that have denounced this massive initiative to censor the online speech of Pakistanis. We strongly urge those that have not yet done so to join Websense, Verizon, Sandvine, and Cisco in upholding the human right to free speech and disassociate themselves from repressive state policies.
The way that companies conduct their business has a direct impact on hundreds of millions of Internet users. Therefore, these companies need to consider enacting a permanent policy for dealing with governments in a way that protects and respects the rights of their users. Companies should also consider joining coalition groups, such as the Global Network Initiative, to remain informed of ongoing threats to Internet freedom and how to dedicate their companies to higher standards of human rights.
Sign this Access petition to urge companies to publicly denounce this initiative to censor millions of Pakistanis.
For more resources and coverage on censorship in Pakistan: http://bolobhi.org/timeline-campaign-against-internet-censorship-in-pakistan