legislation is required”
reflects a deeply flawed counter-terrorism policy” on minority rights and internet freedom, and co-founder
on minority rights and internet freedom, and co-founder
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 monopolises 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
However, the proposal has
its supporters, including the patron-in-chief of Pakistan People’s Party
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
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
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.
The News on Sunday: What
is the state of affairs regarding internet regulation in Pakistan?
Fouad Bajwa: I see
internet as a globally connected and distributed network that has no one
central governing body, thus governance usually happens at the state level
by countries themselves.
Secondly, over the years,
we have seen abundant evidence of substantial ad-hoc internet regulation
taking place in Pakistan. It spans across internet or mobile internet
related online content, covering morality, social, political, and security
related issues. For the last decade, all Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
have been required by the government to retain their users’ browsing
history and content for 90 days should the need arise for investigation or
malicious activity affecting state security.
PTCL is believed to be
running internet traffic monitoring software, such as Sandvine, on its
network that may have blocking and filtering capabilities. Similarly, PTA
can monitor cellular and mobile traffic whereas all telecom operators may
have some form of traffic management and monitoring software in place
because law-enforcement agencies do gain access to a SIM user and call data.
Besides, there are reports of active blocking of content related to
anti-state, separatist movements, militant groups, and blasphemous content.
Most or all of the content blocking and filtering tools are made in Europe
or elsewhere and deployed under commercial contracts between the concerned
TNS: At what phase of
online communication does this regulation begin?
FB: It begins when
citizens in any country create and upload digitised content through
computers, audio and visual equipment, mobile phones and smartphones or
content created by intelligent machines and devices, such as location data.
Such content may be hosted anywhere in the world or restricted to viewership
in certain countries. Certain countries may restrict the type of content its
citizenship views. This is how we approach and understand the issue of
Internet regulation may
cover what websites are acceptable for viewers, providers of such website
hosting, providers of telephony services and mobile content, content
production and distribution, service creation and management, email and file
sharing services, etc.
TNS: What option does the
public have in times of censorship?
FB: The public has only
one choice. As key stakeholders, they should demand of the government to
share its details and plans publicly before actually taking actions, leading
to online content blocking and filtering. This is about access to
When the Sindh government
raised its intention to block Skype, Viber and WhatsApp, it did two things.
One, it gave a statement without evidence that signifies weak public policy
processes, plus lack of knowledge. Secondly, it blamed the service of
facilitating violence and extremism. This is equivalent to switching off the
electronic media because it questions the government on its performance.
The question is, has
revoking arms licenses, shutting down mobile phone services, and banning
pillion riding ever stopped violence? The government has to realise that
internet, mobile phones, mass media, etc, are not the reason behind the
spread of violence and extremism. Instead, lack of public policy, weak
governance and regulation, and lack of coordination among law-enforcing
authorities are the root causes. Shutting down every form of communication
is like burying our heads in sand.
TNS: What are the
consequences of increased muzzling of internet by the state?
FB: The consequences are
mostly negative and many. Internet has helped in improving the quality of
life, governance and regulation of markets, provision of information for
literacy and education, sharing news and information on financial and
related markets. In fact, the globalised inter-connectivity is fundamentally
due to the internet, mobile and satellite communications. Anyone
disconnected from this network is losing both socially and economically.
Political regimes are challenged due to the opportunity for citizens to hold
their governments accountable and demand for more transparency. The internet
is also a major source of generating revenue where hundreds and thousands of
citizens use the internet daily to communicate with customers.
TNS: Do you mean the
government should have no role in internet governance?
FB: I’m not saying this.
In fact, we require new legislation after holding consultations with experts
and citizens. The government should ensure transparency by providing
evidence-based policy formulation to back its decisions and should be held
accountable by committees that comprise of human rights advocates, media
professionals, and technical and academic experts.
— By Shahzada Irfan
reflects a deeply flawed counter-terrorism policy” on minority rights and internet freedom, and co-founder
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: 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
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