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Great Firewall of Pakistan erection stroked with govt cash

Oi, China, do you mind if we copy yours?

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The Pakistani government has taken the unusual step of touting for firms it thinks could help build it a nationwide content-filtering service capable of blocking up to 50 million websites.

In a move denounced by privacy campaigners and some technology providers, regulator the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority published a request for proposals (PDF) for the “deployment and operation of a national level URL Filtering and Blocking System” which would operate on similar lines to China's Golden Shield, or "Great Firewall".

Academic and research institutions as well as private commercial entities have until 16 March to submit their proposals, according to the request's detailed 35-point system requirements list.

Key among these is the following: “Each box should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs (concurrent unidirectional filtering capacity) with processing delay of not more than 1 milliseconds.”

The document also describes rather optimistically that the internet in Pakistan is “mostly unrestricted and unfiltered”, with two backbone providers, PTCL and TWA, along with ISPs providing manual tools to block specific content as and when requested by the Telecommunications Authority.

Many countries have deployed web filtering and blocking systems at the internet backbones within their countries. However, Pakistani ISPs and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable websites 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.

ICT R&D Fund has decided to fund the indigenous development, deployment, operations and maintenance of such a system by companies, vendors, academia and/or research organisations with proven track record.

This system would be indigenously developed within Pakistan and deployed at IP backbones in major cities, ie, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Any other city/POP could be added in future. The system is proposed to be centrally managed by a small and efficient team stationed at POPs of backbone providers.

Despite claiming in the request that it has a fairly light touch when it comes to censorship, the Pakistani government has been pretty swift in the past on clamping down on content deemed unsuitable.

In February it blocked access to 13,000 “obscene” sites and last year the Telecommunications Authority ordered mobile carriers to block any texts featuring any of 1,000 blacklisted words.

Unsurprisingly the new plan hasn’t gone down well with rights groups. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) called it “deeply troubling” while Pakistan-based group Bytes for All labelled it a “disastrous move”.

“This move by the government proves our grave concerns regarding internet freedom & online privacy issues in Pakistan,” it said in a prepared statement.

“Bytes for All is already very concerned about the fact that there will be major crackdown on the internet towards general elections in 2013 by introducing more and more surveillance mechanisms and monitoring of citizens digital communications. These recent developments are probably the start of things and we wonder what to expect in the near future.”

Tech vendors have also sought to distance themselves from the project. Content-filtering security firm Websense had the following to say:

Websense will not submit a response to this request for proposal (RFP), and we call on other technology providers to also do the right thing for the citizens of Pakistan and refuse to submit a proposal for this contract. Broad government censorship of citizen access to the internet is morally wrong. We further believe that any company whose products are currently being used for government-imposed censorship should remove their technology so that it is not used in this way by oppressive governments.

It will be interesting to see which tech providers stick their heads above the parapet and offer assistance to the Pakistan authorities. ®

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