Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology appears to have reversed course on its proposed Internet filtering system. Bushra Gohar, Member of the National Assembly, confirmed to The Express Tribune “that the MoIT had decided to reverse its decision.”
In February, the Ministry announced that it was seeking bids from private-sector companies for the construction of a more robust automated Internet filtering system. Friday, March 16, was the deadline for bids on “the development, deployment and operation of a national level URL Filtering and Blocking System” [PDF of the request for proposal (“RFP”)]. To date, Pakistan has manually blocked websites considered “blasphemous” (generally pornographic in nature) at the local ISP level. In contrast, the proposed automated system would be able to block up to 50 million sites through a nationally controlled, centralized blacklist.
The level of openness with which Pakistan had advertised their plans surprised many people; the plan was advertised in national papers and on the web. “Many countries censor the Internet, but few spell out their intentions as explicitly as Pakistan,” summed up the New York Times. Although Pakistan’s stated purpose was to consolidate filtering efforts already in place, “critics dismiss that claim as a smokescreen for the government to tighten its control over the Internet and choke off dissent” much like China’s Great Firewall.
Unsurprisingly, news of the planned filtering system was not received well. Shortly after the RFP was announced, the digital freedom activist organization AccessNow.org called for technology companies to boycott the RFP. Using a petition (signed by over 18,000 individuals), they aimed to pressure companies to publicly abstain from the RFP:
A national firewall in Pakistan would censor 20 million of its citizens, and would inflict serious harm to its business, cultural, and educational communities. We urge you to publicly denounce the project and commit to not submitting proposals to build this outrageous censorship system.
Western companies Cisco, McAfee, Websense, Verizon, and Sandvine pledged joined the boycott in the weeks before the deadline, though Access hoped to add Blue Coat, Netsweeper and Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE to that list. (Those firms would not comment on their plans when queried by Forbes, though a representative of Blue Coat told CNET “Blue Coat did not bid on this opportunity.”)
Access’s campaign also called for local companies to abstain from participating in the Ministry’s RFP. Numerous Pakistani free speech groups including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All joined in protest; Bytes for All put out the call, “Let’s join hands to stop the coldblooded murder of the Internet in Pakistan!”
Identifying bidders has proven quite difficult. CNET reports:
“Good luck trying to find out,” said an executive at a technology company which sells products to many developing nations including Pakistan. “Nobody here is going to talk about that–nobody. Forget even getting something on background. And don’t you dare use our company name.”
Because we cannot know who (if anyone) bid on this project, we may never know the real reason why Pakistan has seemingly decided to pause development. Unfortunately, one byproduct of the public outcry that accompanied this RFP is that if Pakistan tries again, it is unlikely to be so public about it a second time.
While yesterday’s news is good news for Pakistan’s free speech advocates, Bolo Bhi stresses that any celebrations are premature as long as the country continues to push for e-crime legislation. “We continue to advocate for the necessary regulation to ensure transparency and government accountability.”
Should Pakistan’s Ministry continue to pursue a centralized filtering regime (publicly or not), it will hurt the country’s reputation for Internet freedom. Organization Reporters Without Borders recently listed twelve countries on its 2012 “Enemies of the Internet” list; although Pakistan was not one, they warned that Pakistan is in danger of being added to the lineup next year.