Broken promises: Pakistan announces plans to launch censorship firewall, possibly with Chinese tech

New mechanisms to censor websites and filter mobile communications could come online in Pakistan, possibly within 60 days, according to government officials in the country and activists on the ground. News that the censorship system is being built directly conflicts with promises made by Pakistani government officials a little less than a year ago to not pursue massive online censorship.

On Jan. 3, the Director of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), Farooq Ahmed Khan, confirmed to Pakistan Today that “in the next 60 days a new mechanism for blocking un-Islamic, pornographic and blasphemous material from websites will be activated.” According to the newspaper, the new system would create a central chokepoint for all Pakistani internet traffic, whether landline or mobile. It would also enable filtering of content through mechanisms placed at the landing points of undersea data cables.

The announcement is not a complete surprise. Blogger and activist Sana Saleem has previously discussed how Pakistan has covertly controlled expression online for several years. “While the [Pakistani] authorities remain enamored by China’s fast growing economic model,” Saleem recently wrote, “they have also long been eyeing the China’s system of censorship and surveillance.”

Saleem, executive director of the advocacy group Bolo Bhi, believes Chinese firms are now supplying the technology for this new system. On Nov. 30, Saleem, who also blogs at Global Voices, wrote an open letter to Chinese netizens calling on them to show solidarity and demand that their corporations refuse to be involved in this project. Saleem called out Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei, both major global telecommunications equipment makers, as having aided censorship in Libya and Iran and possibly being involved in Pakistan’s new firewall.

Saleem’s letter drew a huge response. The South China Morning Post reports that Saleem received over 300 comments on her Google Plus post in a few hours. Huawei commented immediately, citing its “full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, including those of the United States and the United Nations.”

ZTE, however, took several weeks to weigh in. On Dec. 19, it responded to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s request for comment by stating, “ZTE has business in more than 140 countries, and complies with the laws and regulations in all the markets where we operate. As an international company, we are respectful of local cultures and customs.”

Earlier last year, the PTA published a request for bids to build a censorship firewall to be submitted by March 16, 2012. Access joined Saleem and Bolo Bhi to get tech companies to publicly denounce the firewall, and refuse to submit proposals. The campaign and international outcry yielded successful outcomes, including a verbal commitment from Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology to shelve the program as well as commitments from five European and American companies to not be involved. (The latest news reports suggest a split in the Pakistani government: the Ministry of Information Technology opposes the new filtering program, while the PTA is pushing ahead with its installation.)

Global dialogue on telecoms and corporate accountability

Telecommunications companies have eagerly embraced the possibilities of new technologies and services, resulting in a worldwide explosion of mobile phone use and wireless data exchange. However, internet firms, and telecoms in particular, have been slow to recognize that with these new powers, enabling more users to innovate and enjoy their freedom of expression rights, come new responsibilities to respect privacy. Government requests to conduct mass surveillance, filtering, and throttling–or even shut down entire networks–violate the human rights of users, domestic legal protections, and even the telecoms’ own policies.

A number of initiatives are underway to expose these restrictive government requests, for example, through corporate transparency reports, and to educate governments on ways to legally access data while protecting privacy.

Some governments, of course, are more responsive than others. To date, Pakistan has shown that it is susceptible to public pressure, having shelved the proposed firewall earlier in 2012 and cancelling a SMS filtering program in 2011 in the face of civil society outcry.

At the same time, many telecoms and internet companies have made changes to their policies and practices in an effort to ensure that their new services do not harm the fundamental rights of users. Industry-wide responses like the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue correctly assert that the pressures on telcos are best dealt with in consort with partner companies. However, without meaningful and continuing guidance from all sectors, including civil society and government, these self-regulation efforts are likely to fall short of the robust framework needed.

Others in the field, like Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei, prefer to ignore their human rights impacts, issuing cursory statements prioritizing ‘local’ law and customs over international human rights law and norms. Bolo Bhi labeled ZTE’s response “noncommittal,” demonstrating their “indifference towards the human rights violations carried through the technology they sell.” To truly respond to the call by Sana Saleem and Pakistani and Chinese users, ZTE and Huawei must acknowledge their impact on the human rights of users, and work transparently to address their impacts. As unlikely as this sounds, Huawei at least has shown some flexibility, having scaled back activity in Iran in response to international concerns.

Given the Pakistani government’s back and forth record of proposing restrictive technologies, and retracting in the face of international outcry, we urge users to once again raise their voices in support of the digital rights of Pakistani users. We support Sana Saleem and Bolo Bhi, as well as their partners in China, and call on the Ministry of Information Technology to honor its commitment not to pursue censorship and to seek to ensure that the entire Pakistani government follows suit.