A block and ban story

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.

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.


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