In February, 2012, Pakistan’s information technology minister invited bids for deployment of a national internet filtering system. China’s “Great Firewall” was the inspiration. Pakistani authorities’ intent to limit free information access online was confirmed in September, 2012, when Pakistani internet users were denied access to the entire YouTube platform, an official response to posting of the film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was deemed blasphemous. Currently, 20,000 to 40,000 sites are blocked in Pakistan. This massive censorship is the work of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the main web regulation agency, itself closely controlled by the government and the military.
Created in 1997 by the Telecommunication Reorganization Act (1996), the PTA is the main Pakistani regulatory agency overseeing the internet and the telecommunications industry as a whole. The agency is in charge of blocking and filtering, and of licensing internet service providers.
Many experts and human rights organizations challenge the agency’s lack of transparency and independence. Aside from the fact that its members are directly appointed by the government and are accountable to the Ministry of Information Technology, the PTA has proved itself opaque in its operations.
For the past several years, members of government security agencies have been directly participating in internet blocking and filtering. The Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites, created within the information technology ministry in 2006, is assigned the mission of determining what online content should be blocked. In addition, the committee is assigned with making recommendations to guide the ministry’s decisions concerning blocking and filtering. This obscure regulatory body is made up of government officials and security agency staff whose names have not been disclosed.
As a rule, the government issues blocking orders, which go through the inter-ministerial committee, which then transmits them to the information technology ministry and the PTA, which then notifies service providers. But, given the absence of a formal legal structure, the orders can also go directly to the PTA and service providers without participation by the inter-ministerial committee. A service provider that defies an order from the PTA risks a suspension of operating license.
Swept into the blacklist
The PTA maintains a blacklist of URLs that are blocked through the Internet Exchange Point, the internet backbone over which most internet traffic reaches Pakistan. Blocking is also conducted by internet service providers.
With YouTube access still blocked, evidence points to official use of filtering technology. In June, 2013, Canada’s Citizen Lab, a technology research and development organization, published a report in cooperation with the digital freedom defence NGO Bytes for All. The report demonstrated the use on Pakistan’s PTCL telecommunication network of “Netsweeper” filtering technology, developed by a Canadian firm.
The PTCL network accounts for about 60 per cent of Pakistan’s broadband capacity. The report reveals that the filtering technology was installed to carry out political and social objectives.
In 2006, the OpenNet Initiative, which investigates and reports on digital filtering and censorship, had already assembled evidence of filtering applied to blasphemous content and to sites advocating for the rights and autonomy of the Baloch, Sindhi and Pashtun peoples in Pakistan.
Justifications advanced for blocking and filtering include the fight against terrorism, condemnation of blasphemy and of pornography, as well as the protection of national interests. In recent years, blocking and arbitrary filtering of content have responded to the interests of the armed forces and the political class.
The allegedly blasphemous – especially, anti-Islamic – quality of some content is very often a pretext for the PTA to block online access. The authorities are aware of the ease with which they can justify blockage by citing citizens’ religious devotion. The blocking of content defined as insulting to Islam is far from unpopular in Pakistan. In many cases, citizen petitions have led to court orders blocking sites. Since the early 2000s, Pakistan has been at the forefront of efforts to make “defamation of religion” a violation of international law.
The government bases its action on laws that do not focus specifically on the web, but which include anti-blasphemy laws and the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996. The internet is barely mentioned in these statutes. According to Bytes for All, the anti-blasphemy laws now represent the greatest threat to online information freedom in the country. At the same time, content officially defined as anti-government propaganda, whether related to the Balochistan crisis or seen as disseminating a negative image of the political class or the armed forces is systematically made inaccessible to Pakistani web users (ONI report, 2012).
To date, the blacklist of sites is accessible only to the team assigned to establish the centralized database on which it is based. Given the non-transparency of the PTA concerning blocking, the precise number of blocked sites is also unknown. In a report published in November, 2013, Bytes for All estimates that the number may exceed 40,000.
Since 2012, Pakistani authorities have undertaken mass blocking of mobile phone service. This practice represents a major challenge to online information access because most citizens rely on their phones for internet access. According to Bytes for All, suspension of service during political or religious events has become the norm, especially in big urban centres such as Quetta and Karachi. Security reasons are often used to justify the shutdowns.
For example, on 14 August, 2012, Pakistan’s independence day, the PTA ordered suspension of mobile phone service throughout Balochistan for reasons of national security.
On 18 September 2012, the Pakistani government ordered access to the YouTube platform blocked, following posting of the “The Innocence of Muslims,” a film deemed blasphemous. Despite numerous legal motions filed in Pakistani courts challenging this abusive censorship, as well as official declarations making lifting of the blockage conditional on installation of an effective national filtering system, Pakistani web users remain unable to access YouTube.
During the May 2013 national election campaign a video critical of army generals by the band Beygairat Brigade was blocked on the Vimeo site.
On 25 September 2013, Pakistan’s main gay site, Queerpk.com, was blocked without prior notice. The action took place despite the absence of sexually explicit or pornographic content. According to PTA spokesman Kamran Ali, “We blocked the website under the law because its content was against Islam and norms of Pakistani society.” The site’s moderator then re-directed the site to another URL to allow access. The next day, PTA made that site inaccessible as well.
On 3 October, 2013, the provincial government of the Sindh region prohibited instant-message internet phone services including Skype, Whatsapp, Tango and Viber for a period of three months. Security officials claimed that these services were used by armed groups to plan attacks.