Digital Fortress: From China to Pakistan

In 1994, when the internet age arrived in China, President Jiang Zemin believed that the world was moving towards a new age where technology and information would be of utmost importance and would provide the impetus for progress. That acted as an incentive to begin incorporating technology to uplift China’s booming economy. But as Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s Eight Elders once famously said, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” In order to keep these “flies” out of China, its leaders began to develop the Golden Shield Project in 1998, which  was unveiled in 2000 and implemented in 2006.

This project of massive surveillance and censorship started out as an attempt to maintain records of citizens and control content. It however, quickly spiraled into a mass surveillance and control mechanism for citizens of China, thus earning the nickname; “The Great Firewall of China.”

Today, the state of Chinese netizens is deplorable. Companies practice self-censorship out of fear of being shut down by authorities if they fail to comply with the strict laws on censorship. Citizens cannot access many websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, DropBox, and Twitter, and even the TOR browser has been blocked. Website activity and telephone conversations are monitored to ensure that censored words such as “protest” are not being used (even Shakespeare is not exempted).

Websites such as Google are censored to the point that if Chinese citizens search for Tiananmen Square, they won’t see any images or links related to the massacre of 1989 but only tourist images of the Square itself. Books, articles, and films related to the massacre have been completely censored as well. Several activists and journalists have been arrested for even referring to the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre over email. In 2012, the Chinese authorities also started to block Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that allowed citizens to access blocked websites.

In June 2013, The Guardian began publishing a series of articles that revealed how the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) was spying on Americans and foreign citizens using programs such as PRISM, which collected information including search history, web-chat, and emails, as well as collecting phone data.  According to a detailed report in The Guardian, “The NSA had secretly attached intercepts to the undersea fibre optic cables that ringed the world. This allowed them to read much of the globe’s communications. All of Silicon Valley was involved Google, Microsoft, Facebook, even Steve Jobs’s Apple. It had even put secret back doors into online encryption software – used to make secure bank payments – weakening the system for everybody. The spy agencies had hijacked the internet.”

The surveillance was not  limited to possible criminals or people with links to terrorist organizations- as whistleblower Edward Snowden explained in his first public  interview for The Guardian, “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded…it’s getting to the point where you don’t even have to have done anything wrong, you only have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made…attack you on that basis…and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

Globally, China is seen as a repressive state with limited, if any freedom. America, while criticized for many reasons, is largely perceived as a liberated country, and it’s people’s freedoms are idealized a great deal. American society is also shifting towards a more egalitarian model, with various individuals and organizations battling for gender and racial equality.  But a mostly liberated public and fundamental human rights are clearly not mutually inclusive for the American Government, given  the state is carrying out extensive surveillance, not just on its own citizens, but foreign countries as well.

In Pakistan, censorship began as early as 2006, when the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA)  began aggressively blocking websites that were deemed to have objectionable, immoral or blasphemous material.  In 2012, reports emerged claiming that the PTA was pursuing a URL-filtering system whereby, instead of blocking websites on an IP level they could simply target specific URLs (including ones within websites).

While, the YouTube ban is still in place since 2012, in late 2013, the Sindh government attempted to ban Viber, Whatsapp, Skype, and other chat applications for a period of three months claiming national security concerns. While the Sindh government did not go ahead with the plan amid backlash from users, it is an alarming notion that they would  consider limiting the ways in which people communicate.

Pakistan, like China, longed to ban the use of VPNs. Earlier this year, PTA began a crackdown on VPNs in the garb of “curbing grey traffic”. This began with banning SpotFlux, and gradually moved on to other VPNs such as HotSpot Shield and CyberGhost, which meant that netizens could no longer access YouTube, unless they used proxies.  (Read our post on VPN blocking in Pakistan)

While Pakistan may lack the technological sophistication that United States has at its disposal, it is clear that for a long time, Pakistan has been greatly inspired by China’s censorship policies. The ban on YouTube, and previous short-lived bans on social networking websites Facebook and Twitter, as well as the surveillance technology FinFisher and URL-filtering and blocking software Netsweeper, are reminiscent of the many ways in which China carries out its censorship and surveillance. In fact, in late April 2014, PTCL partnered with Dailymotion to bring the website to Pakistan. This is no different from what China has done, blocking websites such as YouTube to replace them with its own YouKu, Sina Weibo as a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, and even localized search engines.

The political condition in China, when it began to implement its repressive policies, and of Pakistan in the past decade is largely different. China’s oppressive regime has been silencing its people with brutality and censorship long before the internet was created.

Individuals and organizations are comparatively freer to criticize government censorship in Pakistan, and yet they are still living with partial censorship. The government still shows a lack of interest in removing the YouTube ban despite vocal opposition from civil society. PTA has gone on record to state that it does not conduct surveillance, despite the presence of Finfisher servers in Pakistan. It is also quite clear that the government, especially the Ministry is not consulting with civil society activists and organizations and thus, operating under willful ignorance.

The comparison between the digital landscapes in Pakistan and the repressive conditions in China are valid, and much-needed. The image is bleak, but needed to reflect where we are headed in terms of digital privacy and access to information.  Pakistan could replicate the Chinese model of censorship in efforts to govern the internet, and that is something that cannot be allowed to happen.


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