WORLD -- March 20, 2012 at 11:18 AM ET
Pakistan's Plan for Internet Firewall Draws Concerns
A Pakistani tries to open Facebook at an Internet cafe in Islamabad in May 2010. Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images.
Pakistan is joining a growing number of governments trying to block their populations from websites deemed objectionable. Pakistan's recent effort to create an Internet filtering system has some free-speech advocates dreading what they're calling a new layer of censorship.
Last month, Pakistan's Ministry of Information Technology placed an advertisement in newspapers nationwide calling for IT companies to help build a firewall for the Internet.
In its request for proposal, the government said: "Many countries have deployed web filtering and blocking systems at the Internet backbones within their countries. However, Pakistani ISPs (Internet service providers) and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable web sites using current manual blocking systems. A national URL filtering and blocking system is therefore required to be deployed at national IP backbone of the country."
Friday was the deadline for companies to submit their proposals. There is no word on when the firewall could be put in place.
In the Pakistani government's quest to preserve public morality, it has blocked access to pornographic sites and sometimes to other sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Other countries that engage in Internet filtering include China, Iran and Myanmar. During the Arab Spring, some countries temporarily blocked Internet access to try to prevent massive protests. The United States blocks certain sites in libraries and grade school classrooms.
Mike Rispoli, campaign and media strategist with AccessNow, an international organization aimed at improving people's access to the Internet, said that while Pakistan has actively censored content, its efforts to do so have never been so public.
"While countries have the need to safeguard morality, this would be...a really misguided and dangerous system," Rispoli said.
"We think it's political dissent that they're targeting. But it's really just blanket surveillance," said Sana Saleem, CEO of Bolo Bhi ("Speak Up"), a group that focuses on digital freedom.
The Pakistani government has attempted content blocking in the past. In November, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority requested cellphone companies to block more than 1,000 words and phrases it considered offensive, including "sex", "Jesus Christ," "murder" and "athlete's foot."
In May 2010, a court in Lahore ordered the government to block Facebook after a page called "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" gained attention across Pakistan. The page asked users to post images of the prophet Muhammad, which the court considered blasphemous and is offensive to some Muslims. YouTube was blocked just days later over similar concerns of sacrilegious content.
Saleem said that because of the public's sensitivity to blasphemy, she and others protesting the Facebook ban faced some backlash. "People started to ask: Are you with the prophet or are you with Facebook? There was a point when we might have been tried under the blasphemy law."
If the Internet firewall is put into place, Saleem and Rispoli both worry that its reach would extend beyond what it now advertises. Both of their groups are campaigning against it, including sending letters to the Ministry of Information Technology, asking them to drop the project.
They also recently launched an online petition, which has gained thousands of signatories, calling for IT companies to opt out of participating. So far, five companies said they will not participate in the Pakistani government's request. McAfee was the latest company to announce their retraction, with a message on Twitter.
In addition, Saleem warned that such a firewall would give the international public the wrong impression of Pakistan.
"For Pakistani authorities to crack down on the voices of the people, it shows that they have something to hide," she said. "This is giving out a very wrong message to the world."