Opposition parties have come out firing against the Protection of Pakistan Bill (PPO), vowing to block it in the Senate. The Bill, passed by the National Assembly, is expected to be tabled in the Senate during the session currently in progress. Amending the bill to “constitutionalize” it before passing it and challenge it in court if efforts to block it are unsuccessful, are also options being considered by opposition members.

Why the PPO?

The PPO was first introduced as law by the President of Pakistan under the recommendation of the ruling party on the  October 20, 2013. According to the government, the Bill seeks to strengthen security forces including the army, Frontier Corps, police and Rangers in the battle against terrorist in Pakistan. The Bill has come under harsh criticism due to what seems like an attempt to turn Pakistan into a police state wherein the ability and powers of the police and law-enforcement agencies  have been disproportionately increased.

Proponents of the law, however, have defended it as a necessary step to curb the security situation of the country where political, sectarian and religious acts of terrorism have been increasing over the last decade. Supporters of the Bill have also argued it stands in line with precedents set in countries such as the US and UK. The US PATRIOT Act was passed only weeks after 9/11 in order to strengthen local law-enforcement agencies in combating home-grown and international terrorist threats to the US. Similarly, the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, was introduced in the United Kingdom.

What has largely been ignored by both the government and supporters of the Bill here are the severe implications. The consequences of this legislation on citizens’ rights will be far reaching if introduced in its current form:

In a discussion on the PPO on Siyasat Aur Qanoon, aired on April 12, the following concerns and required safeguards were raised by lawyer, Babar Sattar:

1) The government has failed to create a balance between policing powers and individual liberties.

2) The PPO reverses burden of proof and puts onus on accused vs accuser. Onus of proof should not be reversed. Accused should not have to prove he/she is innocent.   

3) The preventive detention mechanism needs have oversight – even if the oversight is confidential – so at least the detainees’ status is known to the family.

Watch full show here:

Let’s have a look at some of the problematic clauses of the PPO:

Search, seizure and arrest

3 (2)         (b) any police officer , a member of the armed forces or civil armed forces acting in aid of civil authority may  arrest, without warrant, any person who has committed a scheduled offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion or credible information exists that he has committed, or is about to commit any such act or offence; and

3 (2)         (c) any such officer may enter and search, without warrant any premises to make any arrest or to take possession of any property, fire-arm, weapon or article used, or likely to be used, in the commission of any scheduled offence.

Firstly, sections 3(2) (b) and 3(2) (c) allow law-enforcement agencies to act on mere suspicion and detain individuals and/or search their property. Section 3(2)(c) allows for search and arrest without requiring a warrant. A warrant is a required safeguard that ensures investigating and law-enforcement agencies do not transgress their boundaries and misuse their powers. Those who cite the example of the US Patriot Act fail to mention that such excessive powers are not given even there. The provision for “secret” warrants exists, and law-enforcement agencies are required to apply for them. The PPO doesn’t make provision for even this.  Secondly, vague terms such as  ‘reasonable suspicion’ and ‘credible information’ are vague clauses and the determination has been left to the discretion of law-enforcement agencies whereas at least magistrate-level discretion should be exercised.

Arbitrary Detention

6) The Government may by an order in writing issued by the Secretary Ministry of Interior, or any officer, not below the rank of BPS-21, specifically designated in this behalf, authorize the preventive detention of a person for a period not exceeding ninety days if there are grounds to infer that such person is acting in a manner prejudicial to the integrity, security, defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, or external affairs of Pakistan, or public order or maintenance of supplies and services;

Section 6 of the PPO allows for preventive detention, whereby individuals can be detained for up to 90 days without anyone knowing they are being held. In a country where missing persons (people detained without cause or knowledge of any court or authority by intelligence/security agencies) is already a pressing concern, the Bill will only serve to legitimize detention of people without cause for a lengthy period of time. And since no record of the detention will exist, the scope for abuse of this clause will extend to ridiculous heights. In the United Kingdom, control order which endowed the Home Secretary with limited powers of authorizing arbitrary detention was abolished in 2011 by the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act of 2011.

Burden of Proof

14. Burden of proof.- An accused facing the charge of a scheduled offence on existence of reasonable evidence against him, shall be presumed to be engaged in waging war or insurrection against Pakistan unless he establishes his non-involvement in the offence.

Section 14 of the PPO goes so far as to say “an accused shall be presumed to be engaged in waging war…unless he establishes his non-involvement.” This contravenes the fundamental principle of law where an accused is innocent until proven guilty – and it is not his/her job to prove his/her innocence; rather the accuser’s to prove the charge. If allowed in its current form, the PPO will deny citizens’ the fundamental right to a fair trial. It will put pressure on citizens who may not even have resources to fight a case, to protect themselves. Not only will the constitutional guarantee to a fair trial be subverted, but individual autonomy will be compromised due to the fear of presupposition of guilt of an innocent action.

Scheduled Offences

(1) The following acts, if committed with the purpose of waging war against Pakistan or threatening the security of Pakistan shall be the scheduled offences and includes other offences relating to:

(i)        acts that are calculated to influence or affect the conduct of Government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against  government conduct;

The problem with this definition is the lack of clarity. A fervent protest against the government may be arguably an act calculated to influence the conduct of the government. A strike and refusal to conduct business in protest for example certainly affects the government. Should government action or conduct not be the subject of legitimate criticism? Isn’t it the right of citizens to object and influence government conduct when they feel the government is in the wrong?

(xiv)  crimes against computers including cyber crimes, internet offenses and other offences related to information technology etc;

This clause vaguely alludes to ‘offenses without going to any detail. There currently exists no law in Pakistan where these are described. A cybercrime law is already being considered which contains detail of offenses, punishments and methods of investigation – some of which still need to be brought in line with the rights’ perspectives.  In the absence of clear definitions, this vaguely phrased clause will serve to infringe on rights and further stifle discourse online.

Conclusion

Supporters of the PPO have argued in favour of eliminating bureaucratic hurdles that will, in their view, only enable security forces to perform their duties more efficiently. The problem with this assumption is that it fails to take into consideration the lack of necessary checks and balances or safeguards.

As argued by Babar Sattar, draconian steps in the past such as the terrorism bill introduced by the Sharif government in the ’90s failed to yield any results whatsoever and sectarian strife is arguably worse today than it was back then. Similarly, illegal wire-tap and surveillance has been going on for years – now legitimized by the Fair Trial Act . That too, has not yielded desired results otherwise they would have been evident by now. Legitimizing misuse of power is not a solution.

Last week, members of the Bolo Bhi team observed a session at the National Assembly, anticipating a resolution to unban YouTube to be tabled. Member of National Assembly MNA Shazia Marri (PPP) had tabled a resolution seeking to lift the ban on YouTube on April 1, however, it never made it to the agenda. She was informed it would be put to the house in the next session: April 8. However, the resolution was omitted from the agenda despite the assurance.

During the assembly session, Leader of the Opposition, Khurshid Shah (PPP) raised this on the floor of the assembly and was assured it would be included in the agenda. However, the session neared its close and still the matter did not come up for discussion. Ms. Marri took the floor nonetheless to raise this issue. The speaker, however, maintained the matter was in court and thus sub judice, therefore could not be discussed. In response to this Ms. Marri read out portions from the judge’s interim order,  which stated that a “defenceless battle” was being waged against technology; that “it is impossible to block content 100% ;” and, most importantly, the government of the day had been instructed to devise a policy by the court.

It must be mentioned that  members of the opposition, namely Shireen Mazari (PTI), Dr. Arif Alvi (PTI), Syed Ali Raza Abidi (MQM) and Saman Jafri (MQM) had signed Ms. Marri’s resolution in support. MQM legislators raised point of orders to raise the issue which were quelled, and Ms Mazari was heard on the floor of the assembly saying “at least let her speak,” in reference to Ms. Marri.

However, this too held no sway over the speaker, and in an unprecedented occurrence, the assembly session was called to a close much earlier than usual time.

Minister for IT and Telecommunications, Ms. Anusha Rahman who attended the assembly session, left the NA  just before the issue was raised, delegating to a fellow party member to respond on this matter.

The next day, Bolo Bhi joined MNA Khurshid Shah, Shazia Marri and Senator Farhatullah Babar to issue a joint press statement from Leader of Opposition’s office, to register our concerns about the Government’s  lack of interest on this matter.  Senator Afrasiab Khattak (ANP), who also tabled a resolution to lift the ban in the Senate, was present in person to support the issue, while legislators namely Dr Farooq Sattar and Syed Ali Raza Abidi of the MQM, Shireen Mazari and Dr Arif Alvi of PTI, and Senators Mushahid Hussain Syed (PML-Q) and Osman Saifullah Khan (PPP), all extended their support even though they could not be there in person.

In response to this joint statement, an official from MoIT contacted by the Express Tribune said the following: “The government has decided to disregard both the recommendations of a parliamentary panel and the resolution moved by Pakistan Peoples Party’s MNA Shazia Marri in the National Assembly this week.” According to a Ministry official, “the government would only follow the court orders.”

Have a look a how compliant the Ministry of IT has been with the courts:

Google’s letter not submitted to court by MoIT

It must be mentioned that a response was solicited from Google by the court in May 2013. The query was routed through the Ministry of IT and the response was to be submitted in June 2013. On the day of the hearing, an official from the Ministry of IT appeared and informed the court “Google was not interested in joining the instant proceedings.” This was a gross misrepresentation as the Ministry had already received a response from Google which it was supposed to submit to court. In the next hearing (July 2013), when this was raised in court, the document was discovered at the bottom of the case file. It appears that through a deliberate act, it was never formally submitted to court by MoIT.

Court directs MoIT to devise policy

After hearing all sides: petitioner, ministry officials, PTA, Google (through it’s response in letter form) and amici, the honourable judge directed the Minister of IT to appear in court, seeking a response from her on what the government intends to do about the ban.

An interim order dated August 2013 noted proceeding details and indicated a response that could be adopted to resolve this issue and similar ones if they occur in future. The government was instructed to come up with a policy.

Seven months on, no such policy was prepared.

Court summons Minister of IT – again

When in March 2014 court hearings resumed before a divisional bench (two-member), again the Minister was summoned. The judge wanted a clear yes or no on lifting of the ban. However, again, the Minister did not appear; security reasons were cited for the no-show. The Federal Secretary IT appeared on her behalf, however the judge said it was the Minister who was asked  to appear and it was her who needed to respond to court. As an alternate to appearing, the honourable judge then sought a written response by the Minister.

The response that was ultimately brought to court was rejected by the judge. It was not on a Ministry letterhead nor signed by the Minister.

The judge gave the federation two days for a proper response to be submitted. When the letter was received and contents read out, it was noted that it offered nothing substantive or new – it was a nine-month old response. Also as noted by the honourable judge, the letter did not respond to the question asked: what was the Ministry’s stance on lifting the ban on YouTube.

Court directs Minister to meet with IT experts

Following this, through a written order issued by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, heading the divisional bench hearing the YouTube case, the Minister of IT has been asked to meet with a committee of four IT experts (see here). This meeting has yet to be called – the members have not heard from the Ministry yet. Findings of this committee are to be compiled and submitted to court on May 13, 2014, which is the next date of hearing.

The issue as it stands

1) The government has not complied with court orders; in fact stalled proceedings by not appearing and submitting timely response.

2) By saying the government will not take an independent decision and follow court’s orders, it is actually contravening the court’s orders.

3) Resolutions by opposition members to lift the ban on YouTube, both in the National Assembly and Senate have been blocked. The government is trying to prevent discussion on this subject in the assemblies by saying the matter is sub judice, even though the court has clearly instructed it to meet with experts, consult stakeholders and devise a policy and move towards a solution.

View our resource document with links to court submissions, documentary & interviews and TV shows here

Facebook just published its second transparency report, revealing requests it receives from governments around the world for user data and content removal. The report introduces Facebook’s policy of dealing with government requests as “We respond to valid requests relating to criminal cases. Each and every request we receive is checked for legal sufficiency and we reject or require greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague”.

Between July and December 2013, the Government of Pakistan made a total of 126 requests for user data relating to 163 users or accounts, and Facebook fulfilled 47% of these requests. Moreover, access to content on 162  pages and profiles was restricted.Facebook describes Pakistan’s content restrictions as “content primarily reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications under local laws prohibiting blasphemy and criticism of the state.” Since Facebook states that they check every report for “legal sufficiency”, it is alarming that “criticism of the state” is being listed as prohibited content in Pakistan.

facebook transparency report  1024x559 Facebook Transparency Report: Since When Is Criticism of the State Illegal in Pakistan?

In the past, Facebook pages of groups talking about secularism have reportedly been taken down by Facebook, including the widely read Urdu page “RoshniPK”. Given the history of content removal on Facebook, the recent report raises the following questions:

  • What criticism does the Government of Pakistan consider illegal and prohibited?
  • What laws are being cited by the authorities in Pakistan to make content takedown requests?
  • Regarding account information request, what law is being cited to demand such information?

Pakistan does not have laws that protect privacy of an individual on the internet. Even though the Constitution states privacy as an inviolable right, this is routinely overlooked under the pretext of “national security”.  There is currently no judicial oversight for wiretaps, surveillance and monitoring of content. Moreover, a significant number of Facebook pages inciting violence and hate speech targeted towards non-muslims, certain sects of Islam, atheists, and the military remain accessible. Therefore, it is even more important to ask that precisely what type of content are the authorities targeting? More importantly, the lack of transparency and accountability of the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications must be scrutinized.

 

There is a strong reason to believe now that the traffic for our gateways is being managed by Netsweeper.

The research revolves around one of the key gateways that handles network traffic for Karachi, namely the following server:

khi77.pie.net.pk (202.125.134.154)

From within Pakistan, any attempt to access this server results in an access block.

However, when accessing this very same server from _outside_ of Pakistan such as the US, results in the following screen being rendered in browser (with a self signed certificate). Click on image below:

Netsweeper Image 150x150 Netsweeper in Use in Pakistan

If noted in the annotation, there is a clear graphic at the bottom indicating “Powered by Netsweeper”

If nothing else, this is clear evidence of Netsweeper’s software being installed on critical national network infrastructure. We anticipate that system administrators at PIE (Pakistan Internet Exchange) will be quick to block access to HTTPS on the gateway in question from the outside as well once access to it is publicized.

Imran Moinuddin is the Founder & CEO of NexDegree

Read More on Netsweeper:

June 20: Netsweeper in Pakistan?

Citizen Lab’s report on Netsweeper’s Presence in Pakistan

July 23: Letter to Canadian High Commission Seeking Disclosure on Netsweeper

September 9: Canadian Government Responds to Netsweeper’s Presence in Pakistan 

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2013 issue

“We’ve taught YouTube a lesson by banning it and forcing Google to lose out on revenue in Pakistan because it did not remove the video.” This was the populist response to the ban, which is now almost a year long, on the video-sharing platform. But was that really the case?

The ban on YouTube was imposed in September 2012 upon the orders of then prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf. This was in response to a film, Innocence of Muslims, uploaded on the video-sharing platform, which depicted the Prophet (PBUH) in a disrespectful manner. Citing the possible breach of law-and-order, the domain as a whole was blocked to prevent access to the video. On the face of it, it was a preventive measure to stop violence from erupting in reaction to the video. However, despite blocking the platform and announcing “Love the Prophet Day” with the government declaring it a public holiday, neither of these measures stopped the violent protests. News that such a film existed was fodder enough for riots.

Violent protests are not new to Pakistan. Be it at the time of the Danish cartoons, the release of the film Fitna or the caricatures competition hosted on Facebook – they all led to the loss of lives and property, when mobs took to the streets to vent their anger. And all of the damage was internal and cost Pakistanis, not anyone else.

Similarly, the assertion that YouTube was taught a lesson is also misplaced. YouTube’s earnings from countries based on ads have to do with its local presence. Monetary benefit based on views is only generated when there exists a local version of YouTube in the country. As is explained further in this article, YouTube or Google do not have a local or legal presence in Pakistan.

The thing to understand about the internet is this: It is designed in a manner in which 10 roads lead to one destination. If one is blocked, there are alternate routes. This should be evident enough through proxies, which have been used to circumvent blockades, time and again. The other fundamental distinction to be made is that unlike the broadcast medium, what one does not want to see, one will not see online. Unless one consciously makes an effort to search and, most importantly, click to visit a page or website, it will not just appear.

So what did the ban achieve? If anything, it highlighted an unknown video and unknown filmmaker and put them in the limelight – few people knew either existed before the ban. The ban peaked people’s curiosity, and the most unfortunate part is that the traffic to the video surged exponentially after attention was drawn towards it due to the ban. What the ban did not do however was prevent violent protests. If the ban was supported to register one’s protest against Google and YouTube for not removing the video, why did Spotflux and Hotspot Shield become household names, shared as good options to circumvent the ban and access the platform? If the intention was to remove oneself from the platform, why is it being accessed by hordes, despite the ban? And what is the point in keeping the website blocked when it is being accessed anyway?

Much of this and more came up in the ongoing hearing at the Lahore High Court regarding a petition seeking to overturn the ban on YouTube. Initially, during the hearings in April, the honourable judge was of the view that the video must be blocked but not the whole website as it contains other valuable content – particularly of educational worth. There were two approaches to this: A policy approach and a technology solution.

The policy approach involved asking YouTube (Google’s subsidiary) to block the video. There was much back and forth between the Ministry of Information Technology (MOIT) and Google, but it resulted in little success. What emerged through the discourse in court was that YouTube, as a policy, does not remove content that does not meet the criteria in its Community Guidelines. According to the Google Transparency report 2013, Google “received inquiries from 20 countries regarding YouTube videos that contain clips of the movie, Innocence of Muslims: Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt India, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Australia, Egypt, and the United States requested that we review the video to determine if they violated our Community Guidelines, which they did not. The other 17 countries requested that we remove the videos. We restricted videos from view in Indonesia, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey. Due to difficult circumstances, we temporarily restricted videos from view in Egypt and Libya.”

The other question that arose was: Why did YouTube restrict access to the video in other countries but not in Pakistan? The response to this was as follows: Access to the video was restricted in countries where Google was registered and had a country level domain – and neither exist in Pakistan. If Google is registered in a country, then the local laws are applied. Additionally, if country-level domains exist, the content is restricted at that level, not on dot com. Neither Google nor its subsidiary, YouTube, have any legal presence in Pakistan, neither is there a country-level domain.

What would it take to get Google to localise in Pakistan was the next question. There exists a thing called intermediary liability protection which in Pakistan exists for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This is basically a legal clause that stipulates that the service provider cannot be held liable for the actions of its users. In more simple terms, a telecom company for instance, cannot be held responsible for what its users say to one another through the use of their services. This, for online platforms, does not exist in Pakistan.

In the hearing held on April 26, 2013, the judge instructed the MOIT to seek a response from Google whether it would agree to localise if criminal intermediary liability protection was extended to it by the court for an interim period, until parliament legislated, and if that would enable the particular video to be blocked. Google in return asked the court for a period of four weeks to submit a written response on the matter, which was submitted in July. The thrust of Google’s response was this: “The decision as to whether to offer this service is a business, legal and commercial decision, and takes into consideration, for example, whether there is adequate legal certainty and protections for the provision of such online services in the country.” So not only would other considerations factor in for localisation in addition to intermediary liability, Google’s letter stated that without a legislated notice-and-take-down system through which very specific requests are routed, there can be no compliance with requests. One option that Google did offer was interstitial warnings, which is what led to the reopening of YouTube in Bangladesh in June.

An interstitial is a warning screen that appears as a disclaimer before a video displaying in writing: the content in this video may be inappropriate. The only way to watch the video is by clicking to proceed to it. The important distinction here is ‘should one choose to.’ And one very simply can choose not to by never clicking to proceeding to the video. With that, the chapter on what Google could do to resolve this problem came to an end. Next it moved to what MOIT and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) could do.

During the hearings in April, when questioned why particular links to the video had not been blocked but the website as a whole had, PTA officials had this to say: They would block one link and hundreds more would appear. That is when the decision was taken to block at the IP level. This decision, it was said, was taken by the IMCEW (Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites), and a document with the relevant notification was produced in court.

According to PTA, blocking takes place at the ISP level and depending on the ISP – whether it is a large one or small – and the different equipment they have, they can block up to a certain limit. With the video in question, one, the capacity to block links to this video had been exceeded. Two, while they were able to manage blocking HTTP traffic, they were unsuccessful in blocking HTTPS traffic. In a written submission made to the court by PTA on July 25, the authority maintained there was no system in Pakistan capable of blocking HTTPS traffic. In an earlier hearing, a PTA official had remarked that attempting to tamper with HTTPS traffic would be detrimental for commerce and industry.

Asked if upgrading capability and investing in filtering equipment could guarantee that the video and links to it would remain blocked 100%, the answer to this query was, no. This is what led the judge to question why one should then seek a solution that doesn’t guarantee results. Alternately, why not try and raise tolerance levels and make tools available that allow blocking at home, since morality is very subjective and varies family to family.

It is at this critical juncture that the matter rests and the next steps in terms of what the solution is, remains to be decided. On July 25, the judge issued instructions to the Secretary IT and Minister of State to appear at the next hearing so it could be communicated to them what everyone’s input has been and what the court’s mindset is on the issue. Twice, both the secretary and the minister did not appear and excused themselves. Once the date for the next hearing was set for September, alarming statements started being issued by the ministry.

The minister – and the ministry – have been in pursuit of filters from day one. Nothing on the internet can be blocked 100%. It is pertinent to mention here that even China with its ‘Great Firewall,’ which boasts an investment of with millions into it and with a battalion manning it, has not been able to succeed in blocking efforts 100%. Citizens have found ways to side-step and access blocked domains and content.

Despite how the discourse on the issue has evolved in court, the ministry has vehemently stuck to filters as the ultimate solution even though the risks associated with them have been pointed out repeatedly.

Accepting filters to reopen one platform will have terrible ramifications. Blocking a domain is one thing and does not involve invasive methods. But blocking encrypted traffic through methods such as man-in-the-middle attacks, which mask a third-party as the intended recipient to acquire data, is a dangerous deal to strike. As it is, there is no check on the powers of state bodies. What would happen when unfettered powers and technology tools are at their disposal? It’s no secret how in the past political content has been blocked under the garb of national security. If filters are introduced, who is to know – leave alone check – what is taken down in the name of anti-Islamic and ‘immoral’ content. And what happens to all communication online, that is left open for anybody to scour.

This is the first time a reasoned discourse has taken place – and the court has provided the platform where that could happen. Where else will government officials be in a position to come face-to-face with civil society counterparts, and actually listen – even if not heed – to what they say. But now it is for the top officials of the bureaucracy to adopt a more multi-stakeholder and participatory approach. It won’t be enough to issue statements and remain disconnected from the proceedings. The matter needs to be resolved by taking into account views of all stakeholders instead of making decisions unilaterally.

See also an op-ed written for the Express Tribune: Why Filtering the Internet is a Bad Idea

The Ministry of Information, Technology & Telecom (MoIT) in Pakistan was actively considering filtering softwares as a solution to unban YouTube. According to reports, these filters are already in place. This, to them, is the ultimate solution to all evil that exists on the Internet. Why is that a big deal? Well, for one, it is a direct infringement on my constitutional right to privacy. Let’s talk about how.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that the world we are living in currently now is called ‘the Internet.’ Similar to that what we see in the Matrix or Tron Legacy. Let’s say that when you step outside of your house to run a few errands, you’re followed by a faceless individual who keeps track of every move you make. How many steps you took to get into your car, where you’re going, what you purchased, how much you spent in your purchase, the route you took on your way back home, what time you walked back into your house. EVERY move you make is documented and watched. We would feel oddly threatened, our liberty and freedom of movement compromised, and I would not feel comfortable living in such a situation. I would do all I could to break free from such a hostile living environment.

Translate this to our life on the Internet. Filters, especially those that do away with HTTPS, do away with secure protocols that ensure communication is encrypted and only accessible to the intended recipient, not anyone along the way. If this is done away with, or tampered with, it would mean all our emails, Skype conversations, purchases on Amazon, every move we make online will be or is already being documented and tracked – by the state and whoever else has access. Why would the state be interested in knowing that I purchased the latest copy of Robert Jordan’s book online? Why must I divulge the private conversations I have with my friends on Facebook? Would the state consider that as a source of gathering intelligence? How much intelligence would they precisely gather when my friends and I talk about how we unabashedly wept during Marley & Me?

Another question arises. What of those pages which clearly state that the connections over which they are being transmitted are secure? Amazon, for example, when you’re about to make a purchase which involves you putting in your credit card information. What about those banking websites which allow you to make transactions online? Does that mean that with these filtering-cum-monitoring softwares, the government will be able to track my personal finances too? The answer to these questions unfortunately, is yes.

When you go onto websites, for example, while I write this article, I’m listening to music on Soundcloud with the link on the address bar appearing as, “https://soundcloud.com/”, the HTTPS implies a secure connection. The “S” is the clue. If and where the HTTPS appears to be green on your address bar, the connection is untampered and secure. It has not been broken anywhere. Where the link on the address bar starts with “HTTP”, that is not a secure connection and can be easily intercepted. All banking websites and social networking websites operate on an HTTPS protocol which makes it difficult – nigh near impossible – for third parties to be privy to personal communication and information. In fact the State Bank has even upgraded to TLS.

So how can filters enable snooping? This is where Man-In-The-Middle attacks come in. What are MITM attacks? Let’s say you’re calling a person you haven’t ever spoken to before, for the first time on the telephone for something as harmless as a reservation at a restaurant. Someone picks up your call, you believe this person to be a representative at the restaurant. Simultaneously, the restaurant receives a call from someone pretending to be you. They give your information to the person at the other end, whereas a completely different person, after listening to everything you have said, passes on that information to the restaurant. You hang up the phone believing it is the restaurant you have spoken to, not suspecting that someone else, someone completely unknown to you, has noted down everything you have said. With HTTPS connections, MITM attacks are the only way around and filters would have to employ this deceitful method to block.

A point that may or may not be appropriate to mention here is that I love travelling. It proves to be quite a harrowing experience with me clutching that green passport. I’m subjected to a number of oddly violating security checks. My most recent trip was to Bangkok, where everyday I would come across a temple right outside one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls. I would always look at the temple-goers respectfully. Does my walking in front of a temple and respecting the beliefs of others make me a bad Muslim? Does the choice I made secure my eternal damnation? I’d like to think not. Why? Because like everything in this world, God gave me a choice and the capacity to choose what’s best for me. And I chose to bow down in front of the Ka’bah.

If I were a perfect rendition of our government, I would not just cease to walk in front of that mall, I would never set foot in Thailand ever again. In fact, I would never set foot in any country in South East Asia. Makes perfect sense. Perhaps when they see that I’m not travelling to their country, when they see that one empty seat on the airplane which would otherwise be occupied by me, they would mend their ways and go to a mosque instead of a temple. Sounds like an excellent plan.

By that logic, the government should revoke diplomatic ties with all non-Muslim states, confiscate everyone’s passports lest they attempt to enter any country. Pakistan International Airlines should stop operating flights land to countries that are not Islamic. Each and every politician who holds a British or an American passport should relinquish his/her dual nationality because British and Americans are predominantly non-Muslims.

What the champions of the Muslim faith do not realize is that every choice we make is a test of a certain degree. A test to affirm our belief in our religion. If I’m surrounded by individuals sipping on alcohol, would I conform? If everyone around me is munching on bacon, would I do the same? If adultery is considered a social norm, would I do it as well? The answer to these questions, is between God and me and not between me and His creations. The aforementioned things can be found in abundance or are being practiced openly in the land of the pure that is Pakistan. The real test is whether we choose to do them or not.

Similarly, YouTube, a global video-sharing website hosts all kinds of content. And as I write this, I’ve clicked on a video that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed by a page called, “The Deen Show,” which is all about Islam and answering questions about religion. It directed me to a link on YouTube, but alas! I cannot access it. By the very same logic that has been applied by our government in restricting access to YouTube, their moral filters prevent me from accessing such religious and Islamic videos. Is that also blasphemy?

The question that I put forward is why the State is being allowed to make decisions for me? Why are choices being eliminated from the public? If the video is blasphemous then why would a country that is populated by such pious Muslims ever, consciously search for the video and watch it? It must be understood that YouTube has numerous videos and unless explicitly searched for, no video will simply appear. Why deprive the populace of this the video-sharing website who utilized this platform for purposes which I assure you do not include watching this particular video.

The verdict lies in the element of choice. The freedom to choose. If a person is as pious as they perceive themselves to be then they will not, out of conscious reverence, search for that video and watch it. If some do, then that matter is between God and themselves. We are neither religious nor moral champions to make decisions for others.

US court directs Google to remove Innocence of Muslims video based on the copyright claim by the actress

A US appeals court in San Francisco has directed Google to remove Innocence of Muslims video on copyright grounds based on plea made by actress Cindy Lee Garcia. The actress claimed she was ‘duped’ into appearing in the video, was unaware of the content, had not signed release orders, and received threats after it was uploaded. The basis of her argument is copyright ownership of the video due to her appearance in it, which the court has upheld.

[Read more details about the claim by the film's cast - claims from the crew were reported shortly after the video was released on YouTube here]

Ruling on copyright, not film content

Unlike how this is being perceived in Pakistan, the court’s ruling has nothing to do with the content of the video but a copyright claim made by the actress. The takedown directions are rooted in US local law and its interpretation of a copyright claim on a video.

Given that this is an appeals court ruling, it may not be long-lasting, and can be challenged or overturned in a higher court.

Removal on YouTube.com vs localized versions

The video, Innocence of Muslims, was the cause of much protest and violence in various countries, including Pakistan. Different solutions were adopted in different countries where the video was the cause of much angst.

All content-based requests – including that by the US government – to remove the video on YouTube.com were turned down by Google as the video did not meet the takedown criteria based on its community guidelines. In countries where localized versions of YouTube existed (e.g. country-specific domains), access to the video was restricted at the country-domain level in compliance with local laws. In countries, such as Bangladesh, where a localized YouTube does not exist, Google applied interstitial screens before the video – a disclaimer saying the video contains material that may be offensive to viewers in the country. Following this, Bangladesh reversed the ban on YouTube.

Following the Bangladesh example and in response to protests, Google placed interstitial on the video globally. While the Pakistan government was offered interstitials too, it chose to pursue demands for localization even though that was not on the table for the video in question

[Read Google's letter to the court explaining this here].

YouTube remains blocked in Pakistan.

As per the US court’s directions, Google has been directed to remove this video from YouTube and all Google platforms. No other country’s court can exercise the same jurisdiction over the company (for .com) as it is registered in the US and thus bound by US law. The video has reportedly been removed globally.

What does this mean for Pakistan?

Pakistan remains the only country in the world that still has YouTube blocked due to the video in question.  The ban was imposed in September 2012, during the tenure of the PPP government. In 2014, the ban continues under the PML-N leadership.

For the past year-and-a-half, authorities have cited the video on YouTube as the reason for the continued ban. In December 2012, YouTube was unblocked for roughly an hour, before news reports regarding the availability of the video surfaced, resulting in the ban being imposed again. Given that the video was cited as the reason for the ban, there is no reason for it to remain in place anymore.

The court and the Senate were leaning towards the restoration of the video-sharing platform, even before the surfacing of this news. There has been great debate in the court and more recently in the Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights on the issue of not just YouTube, but the nature of the Internet and approaches to what is ‘objectionable’ while preserving citizens’ right to access.

[See Bolo Bhi's timeline on YouTube Court Case Updates]

Last week, the PTA Chairman informed the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights that opening YouTube was a political decision. If PTA was directed to unblock it, it would. He added that there was no way to absolutely block content. However, he mentioned that interstitial screens can be set up, and this is something Google has done for content PTA has reported to it. The same had been voiced in court in the middle of last year.

Both the court and senators were of the view that a lot of useful content was being blocked due to one video, a solution which could easily be achieved through self-regulation or interstitial screens.

[See LHC's interim order in YouTube Case 2013]

It is important to remember that the issue here is not just YouTube but a much broader debate about the right to information and open access. Since reports regarding the possible removal of the video have emerged, we along with many others have called for the reversal of the ban, which comes with the risk that it may overlook the need to push for more accountability, increased access to information and level-headed policymaking.

Will the Ministry of IT not act even now so this issue can be resolved once and for all?

 

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

Blocking Gamers

Access to networks such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Game Ranger has been denied, again without any reason or explanation offered to the public. There has been no news or updates since, and many believe that the blockade is accidental. The aforementioned networks are communication channels for gamers in order for them to interact and enhance their gaming experience.

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

Blocking Commonsense

Following reports on Twitter that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) has blocked access to certain Wikipedia pages, through access tests in various cities, we are able to confirm that access to specific Wikipedia pages had been restricted. (Particular Wikipedia pages continue to be blocked on PTCL connections across the country).

Wikipedia is an academic crowd-sourced encyclopaedia, which is globally known to be the go-to resource on the Internet for information on essentially any topic in the world.

Some of the Wikipedia pages blocked included pages on sex, child pornography and breast. Other than these, boxer Muhammad Ali’s page was also found blocked on Qubee. Besides Wikipedia, technology websites such as Disqus, Verge and Gizmodo were blocked in the first week of February 2014.  education and child exploitation.

Similarly, medical students reported they could not access breast cancer research on Google Scholar as search results with the term “breast” were being filtered. All this demonstrates the approach towards academic information relating to the human body.

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

Block the Box Office: IMDB Ban

Access to the popular Internet Movie Database (IMDB) was blocked in November 2013, reportedly after the Interministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites issued a notice to the PTA to enforce the ban. Owned by Amazing, IMDB is a popular portal for users to get information and box office review of films and TV series. The ban was lifted within a few hours, restoring access to the site.

There exists no official explanation on why access to the IMDB website was blocked. However, there are speculations that it was done to prevent access to the review of “The Line on Freedom”, a film depicting military brutality and torture of civilians in Balochistan. The IMDB page for the documentary remains blocked from Pakistan.

Besides IMDB, previously Dailymotion, a video-sharing website that hosts music and videos, was also blocked briefly for reasons unknown. Access was temporarily restricted and restored, but no explanation was offered. YouTube was blocked in 2012 and remains blocked to date.

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

The ‘Proposed’ Three-month Ban on Whatsapp, Viber & Skype

In October 2013, the Sindh Government announced it was looking to ban access to Whatsapp, Viber, Skype, Tango and other such applications in the interest of national security. The ‘proposed’ ban caused an uproar online, and Internet users in Pakistan demanded that the government focus on more concrete policies to fight terrorism rather than restricting access to communication. Caught amid fiery reactions from citizens, the Sindh Government rolled back its proposed plan with a rare disagreement from the Federal Interior Ministry. IT and Telecom, it is important to point out, is a federal subject.

Since 2012, authorities have restricted access to mobile services on public holidays & religious events as a “counter terrorism measure.” See our survey on the human cost of communications blockade.

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

The Return of the Firewall

 After going on record in 2012 to say the The Ministry of IT and Telecom (MOIT)would not be pursuing the installation of a URL filtration system, filters made a comeback under new Minister for IT. The new leadership  projected filters as a one-stop solution to unblock YouTube. There have been reports since of Netsweeper’s presence in Pakistan. The Ministry, while not naming the equipment or its source, said it would be ‘borrowing’ filters from PTCL for a period of one year. Soon after, a statement regarding the ineffectiveness of filters was issued. However, what happened to the already acquired filters was not disclosed.

For more details, see our timeline on content filtration over the years and our submission to court on the same.

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

“Banning Google”

The day after she was sworn in as Minister of State for Information Technology and Telecom, Ms. Anusha Rahman Khan announced that the government would be acquiring filters to block access to ‘objectionable material’ on the Internet, followed by an (allegedly misreported) ‘warning’ that access to Google itself could be blocked, if the company failed to remove blasphemous content.

See our timeline on the YouTube ban and our report card of the Minister’s six months in office for more details.

 Pakistans Internet Hall of Shame: 2013 2014

The Elephant’s Foot Approach – Blocking Encryption

What was introduced in 2010, is being implemented on a large scale now. The Monitoring & Reconciliation of International Telephone Traffic Regulations 2010 (MRITT), stipulates there is a “prohibition to use all mechanisms which conceal communication to the extent that prohibits monitoring.” An outcome of this is the issuance of directives banning the use of VPNs – unless registered and pre-authorized by the regulator. Although the regulation was never fully implemented in 2010, it is being implemented with a lot of zeal now.  In recent months. Internet users have faced service disruptions, slow Internet speed as well the inability to access several websites.

Very recently, as a result of an investigation into customer complaints, popular VPN service Spotflux officially announced that their data centers had been blocked by the Government of Pakistan. The use of encryption is not only important for individual privacy but also for the integrity and security of business and financial transactions, and the banking sector. Despite grave concerns voiced by the industry, the ‘crackdown’ continues, reportedly because the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is in charge of managing the filters – and there is no accountability there.

09.01

March, 26. 2014:  Authorities fail to respond to FOI requests, Bolo Bhi Files Complaint With Federal Ombudsman

Officials and authorities in Pakistan have time and again failed to uphold the law and follow through with stipulated procedures. It is up to us to come together to pressurise the government to act responsibly and answer the questions posed to them by citizens about practices that do not adhere to democratic norms and constitutional requirements, such as censorship, restriction of citizens’ right to speech and information and invasion of privacy.  Bolo Bhi’s press release here 

 

 

12.41

February 19, 2014: PTA Confirms Receiving FOI Requests 

We received a call from a PTA official confirming Bolo Bhi’s FOI requests had been received. He official added they were being forwarded to the relevant departments.

12.40

February 17, 2014: FOI requests received by MOITT

 

Text message from TCS confirms that the FOI requests have been delivered to the Ministry of IT. We have not received any confirmation from the Ministry itself however.  We publicly informed a ministry official of the FOI requests via Twitter.

 

 

unnamed Tracking Right to Information Requests
twitter RTI Tracking Right to Information Requests

12.31

February 12, 2014: Bolo Bhi files Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests

Bolo Bhi has filed Freedom of Information requests to inquire about surveillance and web filtering equipment reportedly acquired by the Government of Pakistan. The request seeks information regarding specific laws under which surveillance & filtering equipment has been acquired. We have asked for information such as purchase orders, cost of equipment, gazette notifications, and takedown procedures. Read more

 

Over the last year, Bolo Bhi has spoken to multiple people – entrepreneurs, startups, industry professionals, legal and technical experts, and policymakers – on the issue of Internet censorship and policymaking in the ICT sector. Find here what they have to say.

Watch Pakistan’s Internet BANwagon a documentary by Bolo Bhi, that features the following:

Pakistan’s Internet BANwagon: A Documentary by Bolo Bhi

View full interviews with those featured below (more to be uploaded soon):

Sidra Qasim & Waqas Ali – Co-founders HomeTown

Mobeen Ansari – Photojournalist

Babar Sattar – Lawyer

Wahaj us Siraj – Convenor ISPAK

Khurram Zafar – Adjunct Faculty ITU

Salman Ansari – IT & Telecom expert

Jehan Ara – President P@SHA 

Mushahid Hussain – Senator (PML-Q)

Dr Farooq Sattar- MNA (MQM)

Bushra Gohar- former MNA (ANP)

 Shireen Mazari – MNA (PTI)