Pakistan plans system to filter and block websites

The move is the latest by Pakistan to curb Internet freedom ahead of elections in the country, say activists

Pakistan has floated a request for proposal for a system to filter and block websites, some months after curbing the use of encryption on the Internet, and toying with the idea of filtering and blocking SMS (short message service) messages in the country.

With the country scheduled to hold elections in 2013, the Internet is likely to be a key casualty, said Shahzad Ahmad, country coordinator for Bytes for All, Pakistan, via email on Sunday. Bytes for All is a human rights organization focused on Internet freedom.

The proposed National URL Filtering and Blocking System should be capable of URL (uniform resource locator) filtering and blocking, from domain level to sub-folder, file levels and file types, and each hardware box in the modular architecture should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs with processing delay of not more than 1 milliseconds, according to the RFP posted on its website by the National ICT R&D Fund of the country's ministry of information technology.

The government of Pakistan has repeatedly exhibited an obsession to lock up the country's cyberspace at every given chance, Bytes for All said in a statement Friday. The government's reasons for putting curbs on the Internet usually revolve around excuses such as upholding national security, the war on terror, and religious morality, it added.

In November, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) instructed telecommunications operators in the country to filter SMS messages that included words that it considered objectionable. A PTA spokesman defended the move at the time, claiming PTA is protecting moral values, and is doing this under an existing law that prohibits the transmission of information that is false, obscene, fabricated, or indecent.

But after an outcry from civil rights and other groups, the government has delayed the implementation of the SMS filters, Ahmad said. "However Internet filtering is continuing rampantly," he added.

Some global Internet companies, including social networking sites like Facebook, have previously heeded government and court orders in Pakistan to block content that was considered to be blasphemous.

Pakistan has increasingly used the country's Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act to justify a series of decrees that have been expressly in violation of freedom of expression and other human rights, according to Article 19, an anti-censorship group in London.

The Act has been cited by the government as the legal basis for numerous violations of freedom of expression, including the blocking of web pages, filtering of communications systems based on keywords, the stopping of Internet services using encryption, and the ordering of mass surveillance of communications systems, Article 19 said in a recent report.

It also criminalizes vague and broad offenses, banning the dissemination of "false" or fabricated" information, as well as indecent materials and causing "mischief", Article 19 said.

The proposed national Internet filtering system is planned to be deployed at IP (Internet Protocol) backbones in major cities, such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to start with. It is proposed to be centrally managed by a team stationed at PoPs (points of presence) of backbone providers.

The country's current backbone services providers and Internet service providers have expressed their inability to use current manual systems to block millions of websites, indicating the scale of filtering and blocks that the government is looking for in an automatic system.

Institutions, organizations and companies interested in developing, deploying and managing the system have to submit proposals to the National ICT R&D Fund by March 2.

Bytes for All is working with international human rights organizations to build an alliance to stop surveillance service providers and companies from bidding for the system, and also pressure the government to change its plan. The last resort will be going to a court of law, Ahmad added.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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