Firewalling a Nation
Pakistan has always been unique in its internet regulations. Ever since it gained access to the Internet in 1996, it has been subjected to remarkably little to no blanket government censorship. This freedom of information about social and political issues and trends, both in Pakistan and all over the world, has contributed greatly to the flowering of civil society.
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bimonthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
The differences are obvious if you compare this situation to the nearby United Arab Emirates (UAE), where almost every other web site dealing with politics, sex and relationships, a negative view of Islam, anything from an Israeli domain, and pretty much anything offensive to the rulers of the Emirates, is blocked. Skype is also blocked in the UAE because the telecommunications companies don’t want to lose out on their monopoly over profitable communications systems.
This comparison is not to say that internet censorship in Pakistan has never been attempted: It has, but only in a patchy way. Over the last ten years, Blogspot, Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, and YouTube have been blocked, particularly when the Danish cartoon controversy erupted back in 2005. The government has also blocked sites favorable to the Baloch separatist movement, but bans on various sites, even pornographic ones, have usually been left up to the discretion of ISPs, and have always eventually fallen by the wayside.
However in March 2012 the Pakistani government called for proposals from international technology companies to build a massive Internet firewall. The government asked for bids for the “development, deployment, and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking system.” This was, they said, to be used to block “objectionable” content: Porn sites, blasphemous content, and sites that are harmful to national security. But arbitrary, heavy-handed blanket censorship was the intention couched behind the deliberately vague terminology.
Pakistani internet users, freedom of speech activists, and technology experts started an online campaign to stop the government’s plan in its tracks. They raised awareness about the issue on Twitter and Facebook, got an online petition going, and even went so far as to contact eight global technology companies and request them not to submit bids for the firewall. Five of the eight companies announced they would not be seeking contracts, and the government was forced to back down from its plans.
As of April 17, the Sindh High Court issued a stay order against the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority’s (PTA) blocking of web sites without giving respondents due notice or the chance to respond legally to concerns about content, a temporary victory in the fight against arbitrary Internet censorship. But activists remain vigilant about the threat, knowing that the specter of Internet censorship remains a weapon in the government’s arsenal against the free flow of information in Pakistan.