As published by Dawn Magazine Special Report on 20th Oct’2013 

They say they’re lifting the ban on YouTube. The government has apparently come up with a brilliant plan so that just that silly video, The Innocence of Muslims, is blocked, and we can enjoy the rest of the gazillions of videos in peace. What is this plan? In order to even to begin to tell you about it, I’ll first have to explain how YouTube works.

YouTube, like other more secure websites these days, uses HTTPS instead of HTTP. When you look at the address bar in your browser when you’re at such a website, you’ll probably see a lock symbol and https://yoursiteaddress, rather than the usual http://blahblahblah. What does this mean? When you go to an HTTPS website, there is a certain exchange of certificates between your browser and the server where the site is hosted. Your browser acts a bit like an immigration officer, “May I see your passport, please?” The server says, “Here you go, sir!” And if everything looks ok, your browser allows you to view the site’s contents. These HTTPS certificates are only granted to an extremely limited number of servers across the world, and much like the holographic image on a valid visa on your passport, it would be next to impossible to fake, and all information in such exchanges with HTTPS servers is encrypted.

Now blocking access to an entire website using its root addresses (, etc.) is one thing, and can be done by our Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But blocking access to a particular video on that site would mean screwing with this hardcore HTTPS protocol. Actually, the method that the ISPs have been using to block our access to YouTube, porn and a lot of sites which nobody has any idea why they have been banned in the first place, already puts our internet privacy at risk. This method allows them to keep track of what and when an internet user accesses on the internet, unless it’s done through HTTPS. And now that we’re moving against an actual HTTPS site, this will only make matters worse!

What options did we have in dealing with this issue?

  1. Unblocking YouTube outright.
  2. Working with Google, YouTube’s parent company, to block access to the video in Pakistan (like Indonesia, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey already have).
  3. Installation of filtering and surveillance software on users’ computers.
  4. A Machine/Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attack.

The case for unblocking

Because of the high number of complaints against this video, YouTube shows its users a notification before allowing them to watch the video. This is explained in the following excerpt from the letter they sent to Mr Yasser Hamdani, the lawyer representing Bytes for All in the Lahore High Court case to unban the site:

“In some cases, content may not breach the global guidelines but may still be flagged as particularly sensitive for some viewers. This is the case, for example, with the Innocence of Muslims video. In this case, we add a warning interstitial page that users see before they accept to continue through to the video itself.

The warning states: “The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive or inappropriate. Viewer discretion is advised”. It was on the basis of this interstitial page that the government of Bangladesh, for example, lifted its earlier ban on YouTube.”

Working with Google

Google has ruled out cooperating in this regard until the company is offered Intermediary Liability Protection (ILP) through a legislative amendment which shields it from any legal repercussions resulting from any user of the website uploading content that’s considered unlawful in Pakistan. Following is the text regarding this issue from the same letter to Mr Hamdani:

“In some countries, YouTube has additional functionality and customisation that allows for the highlighting to users of local content within a country. You can see a list of these countries in the ‘country’ menu at the bottom of a YouTube page. 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.

We have been discussing this in the context of the need for intermediary liability protection for online platforms and a clear notice-and-take-down mechanism in Pakistan to bring these provisions into line with international best practice (such as the OECD guidelines). For example, any notice-and-take-down requirements should be based on legal process, address individual video URLs as opposed to requiring broad general monitoring and pre-emptive removals, and allow for counter-notice from content owners. Whilst, without prejudice to any jurisdictional argument, we are grateful for any offer to provide additional legal certainty and protections, we believe that only a legislative change such as a clarification within appropriate legislation would ensure the necessary consistency across multiple judicial bodies and address the international best practice requirements above. The provision of such legal certainty would also, we respectfully suggest, open up the broader exciting opportunities of the digital economy to Pakistan.”

In layman’s terms, Google would only consider taking the video down for Pakistan if such protection was offered to them at a legislative level. The Lahore High Court in May agreed to do this, but nothing seems to have been done about that as of yet.

The software route

There are certain HTTPS-based software which can take care of this issue. These can be installed voluntarily by all internet users in the country, or the government could launch a sort of spyware campaign, forcedly installing it on everyone’s computers. According to reports, our government is already involved in such activity, but hopefully only against certain individuals and not the public at large.


In the meanwhile, the method that our government seems to favour is this one: the Man-In-The-Middle attack effectively puts a proxy server between all of Pakistan’s computers and YouTube. So instead of many of us going to proxy server sites to watch YouTube videos, the government is going to do us a solid and set up a lovely proxy server for us. This server will filter the videos that are deemed not fit to watch in Pakistan. And to use the immigration analogy from the beginning of this article, our government is possibly getting into the business of printing fake visas. They’re going to have to use a Certificate that our browsers will trust as legitimate. Most probably the browsers won’t, and will ask us, “Are you sure about this?” And we, in our desperation, will be willing to click “Yes!” to just about anything at that point.

First of all, the whole point of HTTPS is that it is secure. When you compromise its security, you’re compromising the privacy and security of all Pakistani internet users’ internet transactions and data. Banking pins, email and social media passwords, and secure messaging, could all be monitored, logged and analysed, turning Pakistan into a surveillance state. And what if this national proxy server is hacked? We can say with certainty, that if this method is used, our entire online lives would be at risk.

The best option would be to work with Google on this. We need to speed up the legislative process regarding the ILP issue. Even though this would mean that the government would be controlling YouTube’s activity according to our local laws, which would still be unacceptable to many of us. But still, at least we’ll have YouTube without as much risk!

As published by Dawn Magazine Special Report on 20th Oct’2013 

“There was life before YouTube you know” … say those trying to smooth my ruffled feathers when I express frustration at not being able to access it. Quite true … but the same is true of life before cars or television or the light bulb or toilet that can be flushed or even sliced bread! Why doesn’t everyone go back to it because all of these things offend someone or the other’s sensibilities at some stage?

No one does … because we are not meant to; we are meant to go forward, embrace change and reap its benefits. As with most things, nothing is good or bad in itself. The usage makes it so. It’s difficult to understand for people who are the progeny of those who labelled first the loudspeaker, then the radio, and then the TV/VCR, etc. as ‘Satanic devices’ but is simple for anyone with common sense.

YouTube is a platform; much like a blackboard, or a loudspeaker. It provides an opportunity for people to post video content on it. Yes, it has the good, the bad and the ugly sides, depending on who is watching what, but what it does NOT have is the ability to force you to see what you think is inappropriate.

What it does is that it allows students sitting in an impoverished part of the world to gain access to resources and guidance material developed by the best educational institutions in the world.

It allows musical prodigies like Usman Riaz from Pakistan to unlock their talent and reach the world stage. It allows people like Salman Khan of Bangladesh to set up his amazing which has delivered over 300 million lectures across the world.

Then we have our very own which has the complete curriculum of maths right up to Matric available on YouTube videos for students the world over.

It has delights such as, which entertains and educates little children, and on the other end of the spectrum it had offered a free platform to our Virtual University to post all its educational content on it.

Then we had the innovative platform for webtv that was offered by to engage the youth that does not watch television.

What about the harm this ban has done to initiatives like www.daestv whose entire business model was based on the availability of this free platform?

And what about the wealth of content that our specialist universities like the NED used to access from MIT or Air University? And medical students watching complicated surgeries and learning from them?

As was explained by Farieha Aziz of Bolobhi, the amicus curie for the Lahore High Court hearing the petition against YouTube ban, filed by BytesforAll, Pakistan [a human rights organisation with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies], there were 13,049,489 views on YouTube for videos from just six educational institutions in Pakistan that used the website to place their video lectures. The institutions included the Virtual University of Pakistan, The Institute of Chartered Accountants Pakistan, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, National University of Sciences and Technology.

For those who adopt a dismissive attitude about the art, music and other entertainment resources, even though they are just as important as components of a holistic education, how can they not value the resources that are there in the form of advocacy videos on health, fitness, environment, religion, cooking, DIY tips, advocacy videos put up there by various organisations. What about political and social activism? None of these would have been possible without this free medium.

Data submitted to the Lahore High Court also lists down some very clear contrasts. Total number of views for Islamic and educational content on YouTube were 1,199,368,564, while the total worldwide views of the objectionable film, The Innocence of Muslims, on YouTube were 1,965,186, which is just 0.164 per cent of the former.

Of course, the figures for the offending film owe a lot to the violent protests in Muslim countries which spiked the interest in this very amateurish video which had remained obscure until all hell broke loose here. It probably would have remained so had it been ignored, but what is past is past.

What is the way forward? Is there a way forward in a country where policies are made hostage to violent street protest and where rational discourse is decapitated?

For those who do not seem to understand the way the new medium of the internet works, it is impossible to block something. There are ways to get around these bans. People have found them in countries like China and Iran too.

Such bans encourage people to use proxies. This exposes their computers to the risk of viruses. Offices and institutions certainly will not allow that even if it means not being able to benefit from online resources.

But this does not mean that people are going to stay away. As posted by, the search trends about Pakistanis on YouTube have not changed from what they were in 2012. This means that just about the same number of people are accessing the medium as before the ban.

There are good and bad people, good and bad books, good and bad movies, restaurants and theatre. Similarly there is good and bad content on the internet. However, you can keep yourself out of harm’s way by not accessing it. No one is going to force it on you.

So go ahead, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you can afford to. Otherwise, just Google Youtube unblockers and choose from any number of ways to access YouTube, after making sure your computer is secured against viruses, etc. Watch all that is best on YouTube as it is NOT bad for you!

Published in The News on Sunday on October 13th – Special Report

Ask the people on the streets about the proposed VoIP ban, and the response is rather mixed
By Ammar Shahbazi

The Sindh government’s proposal to ban instant messaging and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) applications, such as Skype, WhatsApp, Tango and Viber for three months has drawn anger and ridicule from the public.940937 01 02 Typed out and that’s all

Internet users are enraged at their utter helplessness, as the government, flaunting its power, comes up with blanket measures — citing the ever-deteriorating law and order situation in the province.

They say government machinery, which is made up of grey-haired politicians and bureaucrats, is yet to comprehend the dynamics of internet.

“They are at a complete loss,” says Kashfia Altaf, a university student, “You cannot treat internet users like this. It’s a different world. The government is totally clueless when it comes to handling internet.”

At a press conference last week, Sindh Government’s information minister, Sharjeel Memon, called the proposed ban an inevitable step to curb criminals from making extortion calls through these Apps — a norm in the provincial capital Karachi during EidulAzha. He was of the view that the decision would complement the ongoing targeted operation in the city.

However, regular internet users see such an idea as a severe infringement of their right to benefit from the World Wide Web.

In the past several years, the use of VoIP apps like WhatsApp and Skype increased manifold. People have set up home-based business through Skype, where WhatsApp and Viber also became a crucial part of their lives.  

“Banning these Apps will affect people in different ways,” explains Khurram Ishtiaq, a software developer who works for a foreign company from his home in Karachi. “The world in general takes this Apps for granted now. There are e-businesses established on the basis of these tools. It’s like banning electricity for three months, because there is an increase in incidents of electrocutions.”

However, the proposal has its supporters, including the patron-in-chief of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto, who famously tweeted: “Dear Burgers, Sorry abt Skype/Viber/Whatsapp. Excuse us while we catch some terrorists and save some lives. SMS for 3 months. Sincerely BBZ.”

There are also some who like to believe that the use of VoIP Apps in Pakistan is exaggerated. And the wave of criticism on twitter against the decision was overly dramatic.

“Ask the people on the street, they won’t even know what Tango is or how WhatsApp works, even I don’t know,” says Shahid Idrees, another university student. “These Apps became trendy just a few years back, and the idea some of these arm-chair twitter-based activists are trying to give is that we cannot live without them. This is ridiculous. Why does everything becomes a life and death issue?”

Idrees, however, does not support Sindh government’s security strategy. He says the provincial government has a history of taking such extreme measures that only lead to problems for people.

The people of Sindh had in the last PPP-led government braved the most number of mobile service cancellations — spending whole days without connections. Then the YouTube ban followed.

The people in general have resorted to a muted response. The rage is usually typed out, and that’s all. Be it a cell phone network or a website, apart from twitter and other social media outlets, the government’s clampdowns never really propel a massive outrage — not even a memorable public demonstration against such trampling of individual rights. “This goes on to show how much YouTube, Skype or Tango is relevant to the majority of Pakistanis,” adds Idrees.

The ban is still a proposal. The federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, has voiced his disagreement over the idea, saying that he is personally against such an extreme measure. It may be mentioned that banning of websites or applications falls beyond the purview of the provincial government. It’s the federal interior minister who will give the final nod. The net-savvy Skype, WhatsApp users are using their Apps while the federal government makes up its mind.




Republished from The News On Sunday – As Published on th 13th Oct’2013 

The world over, there has been a breach of trust between the public and government on issue of online surveillance
By Bushra Sultana


Ever since the invention of the internet there were idealistic hopes attached to the freedom and anonymity it afforded to its users. In the last decade of 20th century, internet was promoted as a bastion of free speech and limitless possibilities in a world still recovering from the secrecy of the Cold War.Bushra Surveillance, elsewhere

Unfortunately though, it wasn’t long before the utopian dream started unravelling. In a little over the last decade, companies like Google and Amazon entered the market with their overwhelming capacity to collect data about their users. This corresponded with massive increase in the amount of data available online. According to Science magazine, even till 2000, only 25 per cent of the world’s data was stored digitally. But by 2013, over 98 per cent of the data was digitally formatted and stored.

This reflects a huge shift in the way we interact with information. More importantly, the kind of information that is now recordable has changed. Many services, such as medical and educational records, and personal correspondence, including pictures and videos are increasingly being stored online. Thus, a tremendous amount of information is now susceptible to third parties.

“The minute you switch on your cell phone it is registered on the network,” says Fouad Bajwa, an international governance consultant. “Even if you switch off your location services, your location and movement is being mapped on the servers. Similarly, when you go online from your computer, it is registered and given an IP address. From there everything you do is traceable.”

Incidentally, the rise of big data — the sheer volume of information stored online — has corresponded with the global war on terror. Countries that were hit by terrorism saw an opportunity for a new kind of surveillance that put less lives in risk and was comparatively faster in yielding results.

Thus, the governments not only set up their own divisions but also got other companies, such as Google and Facebook, to grant them access to their records.

In light of Edward Snowden’s disclosure, it is now clear that the amount of surveillance being done by the US and the UK is overwhelming, to say the least.

According to The New York Times, the US government monitors almost all email content that crosses the US borders. This surveillance was allowed through a 2008 law, the FISA Amendment Act, that authorised the government to monitor its citizens without a warrant as long as the “target” was a non-citizen abroad.

The United Kingdom isn’t far behind. At the time Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) Prism programme, he also gave information about Tempora, a similar operation run by the UK spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) since 2011. GCHQ also monitors almost all data transmitted through telephone and Internet lines across continental Europe and the Atlantic. Additionally, GCHQ shared the data it collected with the NSA in a collaborative attempt to fight terrorism.

Since these revelations, media reports have disclosed how other European governments are involved in online surveillance. France has a surveillance programme. Netherlands’ local media have reported that the government may have access to the data collected through the NSA programme. Earlier this year, the Indian government also introduced a centralised monitoring system for calls and internet communications without being clear on how the individual rights would be protected.

Advanced spyware Finfisher, developed by a UK-based company, has been found on servers on a network owned by PTCL as reported by The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto. However, it is still not clear whether the spyware is being used by the Pakistani government or is being used by another government on the PTCL networks.

Proponents of internet surveillance argue that this monitoring saves lives. But how much success has this kind of surveillance had for the American government?

In June, 2013, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, told a congressional committee that the NSA’s surveillance programme has till date helped stop over 50 terror plots in the US and abroad. These figures quantify the results of such surveillance tactics. But the inherent murkiness of the procedures raises legitimate concerns about the absence of control on the spying agencies.

In the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, elected officials on both sides of the Atlantic — the UK and the US— have either claimed ignorance about the existence of such programmes or have asserted that they were not aware of the extent of surveillance. As Nighat Dad, executive director of Digital Rights Foundation based in Pakistan, says, “those responsible for governance have frequently been left uninformed, or under-informed, or in some cases openly lied to about what programmes were in operation.”

While discussing the need for a balance between the necessity of surveillance and rights to privacy, Emma Carr, deputy director of the UK-based civil rights advocacy group Big Brother Watch, admits “the internet can and should be used as a tool for targeted and investigative-led surveillance in order to catch terrorists and individuals involved in serious crime.” However, Carr argues, the UK parliament did not intend for these laws to permit agencies to gather details of every communication we send, which includes content. “Those responsible for oversight have failed,” she says.

Dad agrees there has been a breach of trust between the public and government on issue of online surveillance. “Civil society… has, for years, accepted that the ‘necessary and proportionate’ clauses [to monitor] were being introduced in good faith,” she says. “That is, that some level of state surveillance/interception must be allowed, but that it would be constrained and properly managed.” However, Dad says, it was later found out that such provisions were exploited to “practice unconstrained mass interception”.

Dad gives the example of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). “In some cases, it is not possible to tell whether what is being done is legal or not (because the laws governing its operation are secret).” She is referring to the courts that operate under FISA. These courts work ex parte, which means during the hearings there is no one present except for the judge and the government to make the case. Also, the courts have approved more than 99 per cent of the request brought for them.

Where does the road lead from here? There is uniformity in the suggested solutions, no matter which country is under discussion.

Sana Saleem, co-founder and director of Pakistani advocacy internet group Bolo Bhi, believes that before any policy on internet regulation is formulated in Pakistan, there is a need to ensure constitutional safeguards for people’s rights. Carr agrees when she says that the European laws are dated and cannot be applied to the completely different world of online surveillance today.

Dad claims the US has a bigger problem when it comes to the laws governing interception and surveillance. “For instance,” she says, “there is disagreement, right up to the Supreme Court, about whether there is any general right to privacy arising out of the US Constitution (particularly the 4th Amendment).”

A coherent and fruitful debate about Internet governance, it seems, can occur only when the individual rights of people are redefined within a framework that reflects the new realities of the digital age.




Republished from The News On Sunday – As Published on th 13th Oct’2013 

One view is that blocking communication channels would do
nothing more than what ban on pillion-riding has to curb crime
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

Pakistanis widely share a joke on what their government would have done had 9/11 terrorist attacks taken place in Pakistan — it would have imposed a ban on pillion riding. Years down the road, the state is accused of curbing civic liberties in the name of security and morality.

Such knee-jerk reactions are often taken without taking all stakeholders on board. The most recent example is that of the Sindh government deciding to block voice over internet protocol (VoIP) communication channels for three months.Skype Viber Whatsapp1 A block and ban story

Earlier measures include frequent suspension of cellular phone services, banning of Facebook and YouTube (still inaccessible) and blocking of hundreds of thousands of Universal Resource Locator (URL) addresses declared harmful for various reasons.

The history of mobile and internet networks is a decade old in Pakistan. In the 1990s, the only private sector cell phone company of that time had to foot the bill of multi-million rupee scanner. The Karachi police required this equipment to track mobile phone calls made on this company’s network, which operated on a high frequency.

The government, which would deny it, was spying on internet users. It made its ideas public in the first quarter of 2012. Through the Ministry of Information Technology (IT) and the National ICT Research and Development (R&D) Fund, it advertised a request for proposals in national dailies for the development, deployment, and operation of a national level website URL filtering and blocking system. This move was condemned by internet rights activists and others who wrote to international companies, asking them not to participate in this bidding.

This leads to the question of internet censorship capabilities of the government. Fouad Bajwa, an IT expert who has been part of several multilateral consultations on the issue, explains the situation. He says such regulations are being implemented without a proper legislation. These regulations, he says, result in censorship of online content through filtering and blocking of websites, IP addresses, and in some cases, various services, such as VoIP services.

The execution role is primarily led by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) at the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE) through which all incoming and outgoing Pakistani internet and communications traffic passes and is sufficiently monitored or recorded.

The technical design of the system is to deploy a national level system that trickles down to the internet service provider (ISP) level, turning them into points of presence (POPs) where content can be blocked. “If the parent body puts in a URL for blocking, the POPs will automatically be updated and ISPs will automatically begin to block the content,” he adds. A prominent example of this is blocking of thousands of pornographic content websites by adding their URLs to the list one by one.

According to newspaper reports, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani student compiled and sent forward a list of 780,000 pornographic websites to PTA for blocking them. Though hard to believe, he claimed he had visited each of them to verify the nature of content displayed there.

The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act 1996 clearly states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force, in the interest of national security or in the apprehension of any offence, the Federal Government may authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system.”

Article 19 of the Constitution grants citizens the right to express and access information except when it compromises national security, public morality, etc. Similarly, Article 31 makes it government’s duty to promote unity and observance of the Islamic moral standards in the country. Different bans have been enforced by referring to these provisions.

Furhan Hussain, Coordinator Advocacy and Outreach at Bytes For All (B4A), an internet advocacy group, contests this logic, saying these terms can be deciphered by the government to justify whatever coercive measure it takes. “National security, public morality, and religion are dear to every citizen but why is it so that the state monopolizes and manipulates them,” he says.

His organisation has filed cases in the Lahore High Court (LHC), including those on banning of YouTube and installation of internet surveillance softwares. Hussain says they have pleaded in the court that they be provided complete list of the URLs blocked by the government. “We are sure there are a large number of harmless websites which have been blocked but nobody knows about them. Websites expressing political dissent have been blocked for obvious reasons.”

No doubt, choices for the government are tough to make but guaranteeing citizens their rights is also its prime responsibility. It will have to be very careful while declaring if a content is harmful or not in political and national security categories.

Similarly, security content may cover national security, anti-state content, separatist movements, terrorist activities and everything usually deemed against a state’s or nation’s constitution. Several websites run by Baloch nationalists and separatists have been blocked on these grounds.

Shahida Saleem, ex-chair of Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s (FPCCI’s) Standing Committee of IT, condemns internet censorship policy of the government and terms it a conspiracy to disconnect Pakistanis from the world. “We (as business community) are already at a disadvantage due to our security situation, power crisis, etc. Now the government wants to cripple us in terms of global connectivity as well.”

She says the business community is worried as it cannot talk to their local and international clients via Skype. Most of their operations, she says, are Skype-based as it’s a great way to stay connected with team members, hold video conferences, and even demonstrate products and services to prospective customers.

Saleem complains the business community was not taken on board. “While the terrorists and extortionists may switch to alternative means of communication, we have no alternative in sight.”

“By blocking these services,” she believes, “the government will lose a source of tracking criminals through their communication and the IP addresses they use to interact with each other. Now they will use proxies, which hide the exact geographical location of users of these services.”

The solution, experts suggest, lie in cooperation of state pillars and coordination on a single policy by political actors and law enforcement agencies, regardless of their affiliations and building public consensus to curb violence.

It’s time for the government to realise blocking communication channels would do nothing more than what ban on pillion-riding has to curb terror and crime.

Republished from The News On Sunday – As Published on th 13th Oct’2013 




The Sindh government recently announced to place a ban on instant messaging and Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) clients Skype, Viber and a couple of other communication networks for three months in the province for security reasons. The ban has not been made effective so far, largely because of the strong reaction from the general public. Interestingly, the most heated part of the discussion has been on social media, as if provoked by the Bilawal Bhutto tweet addressing ‘burgers’ to stay quiet while “we catch some terrorists and save some lives”.

The decision was taken in the wake of the targeted operation in Karachi; the meeting where the decision was taken was attended by the chief minister and officials of police, rangers and representatives of intelligence agencies.

The objections to the announcement were on many counts. To begin with, it was considered an ill-advised move without a comprehensive understanding of the medium being discussed. The futility of the exercise was pointed out because of the countless other applications which were well left out; the terrorists being always one step ahead than the law enforcers would know all proxies, it was argued. An interesting tweet mentioned the possibility of increased iPhone thefts in the city in the wake of this decision since it was not possible to block iPhone apps.

Other than a general sense of frustration at the inability of the government to tackle the law and order issues through conventional means, this particular announcement was criticised because of the lack of trust in the state itself. The recent history of banning and blocking of various internet sites formed an unhappy collective memory; the continuing ban of Youtube only added salt to the wounds.

Then, in the context of Pakistan, everything gets muddled. Since the state is known to impose censorship of this kind in matters of religion and nationalism, too (though if asked the state would cite security as the consideration even in these two areas), people are not willing to grant it this license in matters of security.

According to some reports, the news about this blockage came the same day when Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, had brought out a report that placed Pakistan among the bottom 10 countries on internet freedom.

So how do the Western countries make themselves secure if internet is used as a tool to wage terrorism against them. Do they not face similar issues? Through an effective surveillance, we are told. The difference is nuanced; one filters the content, the other disallows an application to start with. Surveillance of the kind that the Western countries are able to conduct also breaches privacy of the individual. The debate is on even there and an equally heated one.

Meanwhile, some sense is injected into the powers that be in the province and the flawed decision has not been put into effect so far. These are all issues that we have addressed in today’s Special Report on the block and ban story.

Published in The News on Sunday on October 13th – Special Report

Sana Saleem, an award-winning blogger, is an activist working on minority rights and internet freedom, and co-founder of Pakistani Internet advocacy group Bolo Bhi


The News on Sunday: What’s your take on the government’s decision to block Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communication channels? Is this the only way to curb crime and terrorism?Sana Saleem “This reflects a deeply flawed counter terrorism policy”

Sana Saleem: Access shouldn’t be a victim to national security. The plans to block these are a gross violation of fundamental rights of citizens. None of this helps security. In fact, this reflects a deeply flawed counter-terrorism policy.

In the past, the government suspended cellular services over a dozen times. An important point to note is that when the government suspends GSM networks, it also disables home and car security networks, further risking lives and property.

Rather than taking strong measures for counter-terrorism and centralised intelligence data-sharing to enable better security, the government seems to be determined to violate constitutional rights of its own citizens.

With the new government in power, we had hopes for rethink of past policies. However, in the backdrop of recent announcements and continuing blockage of YouTube, the future of open access remains bleak, unless policy makers take necessary measures to protect right to information.

TNS: What exactly does your organisation (Bolo Bhi) do and how has it resisted state control over internet?

SS: Bolo Bhi is a not-for-profit civil society group that focuses on research-based advocacy to influence policy change. Last year, we resisted government’s attempt to install a URL filtration & blocking system.

The campaign last year had two components. First, it was launched at a national level, seeking out academics, entrepreneurs, small business, parliamentarians, and civil society at large to reach out to the government and inform them about the repercussions of the pending filtration system, which included blanket surveillance and ad-hoc censorship on content online. The aim was to build an understanding of how surveillance and censorship impact various segments of society, most importantly, the economic and academic impact of surveillance and censorship technology.

The second targeted the international community. This campaign was designed to ask international human rights groups to build pressure on Western surveillance technology companies not to sell the technology to Pakistan. When we reached out to eight leading companies that sell such technology, five of them committed not to sell to Pakistan owing to increased censorship.

This year, our director has been appointed amicus curie in the YouTube case in Lahore High Court (LHC) where she’s been advising the court on policy and civil liberties aspect of the ban.

In the YouTube case, we’ve been providing the court with research on how surveillance technology works and the repercussions of such a technology on citizens’ rights, conducting research on the use of YouTube for academic purposes in Pakistan and submitting citizen letters to the court and the minister on how citizens have been impacted by the YouTube ban.

TNS: How do you think internet censorship harms the interests of citizens?

SS: The United Nations has declared access to internet a basic human right. Over the years, we’ve seen the role communications technology plays in healthcare, education, business and media. Censorship impacts the society at large, it affects the way we communicate and share information. It greatly impacts our own understanding of our society and history.

TNS: Pakistan has signed international covenants on freedom of expression, speech, etc. Is it complying as well?

SS: No it isn’t. The state has consistently violated freedom of expression, citizens’ constitutional right to privacy, and their fundamental right to access information. The right to privacy is an inviolable right mandated by the Constitution of 1973. Similarly, the right to information is a constitutional right. As mentioned earlier, the United Nations passed a resolution in 2012, declaring internet access as a basic human right. So, blocking access is tantamount to denial of this right to citizens.

— By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed



 Letter to the German Embassy

                                                                                                                                                                       Petra Speyrer

               Consular and Legal Section

German Embassy Islamabad

Ramna 5, Diplomatic Enclave, Islamabad, PAKISTAN

P.O. Box 1027, Islamabad, PAKISTAN

Tel:  (0092-51) 227 9430 – 35

Subject: Letter to The Federal Republic of Germany’s Embassy in Pakistan: Call for Transparency, Accountability & Action Following Reports On FinFisher’s Presence in Pakistan.

Madam Petra Speyrer

As a civil society organisation that works on upholding & securing citizen’s right to open and secure access to information, we write to you to raise the issue regarding the presence of FinFisher, sold by a GERMAN/UK company, Gamma International. This was brought to public attention through a report published by Citizen Lab, a research group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.The lab is independent from government and corporate interests, and publishes research based on evidence.

FinFisher has the ability to affect all forms of software (Mac/Apple, Windows, Android), including but not limited to all smartphones. It works as an espionage surveillance equipment, obtaining passwords for your hardware and social networks, has the ability to read an individual’s chats,listen in to  Skype calls, the capability of listening to private in-room conversations as well as stealing & emailing personal files from an individual’s device. This kind of technology has the potential to be abused & is in clear violation of international human rights laws.

Human right to privacy and free access is a universal right as made evident by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. We quote Article 12 and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”.

Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

By reportedly exporting it’s equipment to countries with a questionable human rights record, Gamma is in violation of United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which identifies “a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity”.

The reported presence and use of FinFisher is not only a violation of the multiple UN Declarations, but a grave violation of Constitutional Provisions of Human Rights of both Germany & Pakistan. Germany provides data protection through “Bundesdatenschutzgesetz or BDSG,”and the European Convention of Human Rights. According to German law, “personally identifiable information without express permission from an individual” cannot be collected or obtained without permission of individual in question; when asking for permission, it must be specified why, for how and what information is being obtained and where is the information coming from. An individual has the right to revoke the permission and all businesses and organisation must have laws that protect private data transmission that falls under BDSG laws.

Germany takes privacy laws very seriously, and is far stricter in its laws than the United Kingdom. Germany has even gone so far as to claiming a fine for Facebook for storing biometric data through a facial recognition software they use. The Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (ULD) is an active organisation that ensures privacy measures are taken and privacy laws are upheld in the nation.

In Pakistan, an individual is protected from breach of privacy by Article 14 of the Constitution, establishing that privacy is an “inviolable right” of a citizen, something that cannot be breached under any circumstance. The right to information has been established under Article 19 and 19A of the constitution, bearing that an individual should have freedom of access, expression and information.

Recently, Bolo Bhi joined a Global Coalition that endorses 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. These principles create a framework to limit surveillance, provided legitimate reasons, legitimate transparent actions are taken in proportion to the situation at hand. It gives protection to the individual from being prosecuted or violated for no reason, while giving a legal pathway for governments and individuals to follow. It forms a compromise between the individual and the state. The principles uphold the fundamental right to privacy.

We have a reason to believe that FinFisher has been used to aid in human rights violations. The very first evidence, as per research, of the presence and use of FinFisher was in Bahrain, 2012, against pro-democratic activists. Cyber attacks were launched against journalists and activists in Bahrain that gravely compromised their security and privacy; many of the activists were sent pictures and news of tortured victims as a means to intimidate them.

Thus, the presence of such equipment in Pakistan where Journalists have been targeted throughout the years is quite frightful. Reporters Without Borders has classified Pakistan to be one of the most dangerous places to be a reporter, and the reported presence of such espionage surveillance equipment is an added threat to an already hostile environment.

More than just a violation of the constitution, FinFisher enables private information to be obtained and used illegally against the respective individual, being a possible threat to their life and liberty.

We request the German Government to assist us in seeking answers from FinFisher, that has reportedly sold technology to Pakistan with full awareness that it would be abused. We ask for assistance to hold FinFisher accountable for unethical business practice and for greater transparency and accountability in the trade. We seek assistance in disabling FinFisher command and control centres in Pakistan & call for strict action and tougher laws to hold British companies accountable as and when they are in violation of domestic, national and international laws.

We hope the German Government and all other governments around the world follow their commitment to free speech and freedom of expression and take action against western companies that sell surveillance and filtering equipment to repressive governments. Put an end to the trade that aids repression.

Yours Sincerely,

Sana Saleem

Director- Bolo Bhi

A popular trend in Provincial policy, banning mediums of exchange communication, has been seen and noted. It is being used to combat the ever increasing security threat in the nation. By banning means of communication, the government feels that they can control the exchange of information and planning of groups accused of terrorist activities, seeing that they are the only ones that use them. Foregoing the millions that use it to conduct businesses, to gain education and simply communicate with family members worldwide, the government has taken this decision solely based on, you guessed it, national security.

Let’s reflect a little on our constitutional provisions first. Article 18 of our constitution mandates that businesses and organisations are free to conduct legal business; e-commerce and all communications via any client used on the internet is protected by the Electronic Transaction Ordinance 2002 that legitimises, accepts and protect businesses online. What this mean is that if a business uses the internet to conduct business, formulate contract, transfer or receive any information and so on, it is protected.  It cannot be compromised, it should be comprised and definitely not encroached upon. Not sure who writes these laws, but there is indication that the ban comes from the very system that played a role in enacting them. Detailing the magnitude of the loss these businesses will face is too widespread to get into, and impossible to process by a simpleton such as myself, but rest assured, it will hit our ever declining economy.

Leaning away from businesses and economics, lets reflect on the impact it may have on  citizens who have family and loved ones all around the world. Increase in gas prices has made it too expensive to travel; work/school commitments don’t give one enough time to do so either. Phone bills are higher each day and communication just becomes more expensive by the minute. To combat the cost of communication and maintaining relationships, we use Skype, Viber, WhatsApp etc that provide us with cost effective modes to be able to keep in touch and feel connected. Its as simple as that. We want to stay in touch, and we have the resources to do so. But now, the government has decided to have a say in how we do that as well? What next will the government regulate?  Who we can or cannot talk to? It comes back to the same argument posed once before, has the government really become nannies for the citizens? (If so, Im still waiting on that college funding that was promised).

Article 9 on the constitution gives Pakistanis their liberty, and mandates thats laws cannot deprive one of their liberty. Liberty is defined as “The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life” ; how am I free if I cannot use simple means of communication? How am I free if I am limited in my ability to communicate effectively with my family or friends that live abroad? How am I free if I continue to sit back and allow my government, the ones my fellow citizens and I came together and voted in (well, at least attempted to), continue to oppress my ways of life? As little as it may seem, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and all such mediums have become a way of us to keep connected with the world beyond our borders. Its effective, efficient and immediate, just the way its needed. How is that threatening?

Now that we are talking about threats, I have my fair share,  I am threatened by policemen on the road that stop me without justifiable cause, because they want “a little extra”; I am threatened by the fact that I cannot be sure if I will have electricity all night, thereby making my day at work less productive; I am threatened by most strangers while taking a walk on the beach, because I don’t know if I’ll be protected incase I’m mugged. These are my threats;  not communication.

A general sense of security is a fundamental right, and what is to be protected by the state. That is their job; they were elected to keep me safe and uphold my rights. They are responsible to ensure that the law and order of the nation is maintained. If they fail to do their job, the only responsibility I have is to resist.  It is not the citizen’s responsibility to bear the brunt of the government’s failure. Yet, for the past decade (or possibly more) it is us citizens that have evidently taken up the roles to be our own protectors, to be our security and to bear the brunt of the incompetence the government has displayed in performing.

It is not the citizens who should be held accountable, it is the government. It is time we held our government accountable for what has happened to our cities; it is time we point fingers in the right direction. Incompetence isn’t an excuse anymore, and neither can it be tolerated. We should be the ones banning, protesting, eliminating or devolving the abuses of the government. They are the ones that have failed, not us; why are we the ones suffering?

Stop remaining silent; they have already taken away our modes of communication. If our voices are what they want to suppress, lets show them how loud we can be, shall we?


 A CEOs Message to the Minister


Ms. Anusha Rahman
Minister of State For Information Technology & Telecom
Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom,
4th Floor, Evacuee Trust Complex, Aga Khan Road,F-5/1,
Islamabad, Pakistan.
Phone #: 051-9201990


Esteemed Minister,

We do hope you’re receiving our messages and are looking in to resolving the issue at hand. As you’ll see in today’s letter, the impact of YouTube has most businesses worried too.

Shakir Husain is the CEO of Creative Chaos, as well as a loving father. He writes to you, reemphasizing the benefits of YouTube, especially to a developing country like ours. The resources and facilities that cannot be provided by the state, are provided by  mediums such as YouTube, which helps bridge the educational gap. In today’s rapidly developing world, quality education is of utmost importance and YouTube aids in the enhancement of academic and vocational education.

Mr. Husain also mentions how alternatives to YouTube are not good alternatives because Google’s platform is incomparable; its vast audience and reach also makes it a means for Pakistanis to showcase their talents, their innovation and creativity to millions of people worldwide, painting a more positive image of Pakistan.

He also mentions YouTube’s capacity to behave as a digital campaign medium, which is beneficial to many organisations, especially NGOs/IGOs as ourselves; having limited funds but requiring wider reach, YouTube caters to all needs and aids in the promotion and awareness of campaigns.

We hope you can empathise with us Minister. YouTube has become an integral part of business functioning and citizen lives and it is almost an injustice to deprive the nation of such an important forum.

The letter is attached, please do have a look. Thank you.

Until next letter,
Bolo Bhi

Shakir Husain A CEOs Message to the Minister