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Pakistanis revolt over Great Firewall plans

Censorship is illegal, claim activists

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Several Pakistanis are taking their government to court in a bid to stop the ‘illegal’ blocking of sites for political purposes and to force the authorities to shelve current plans for a nation wide web filtering system similar to the so-called Great Firewall of China.

Local newspaper The News International reported that the High Court in Sindh province, where Karachi is situated, has issued notices to the Ministry of Information Technology and regulator the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) from petitioner Ayesha Tammy Haq and others.

The petition reportedly accuses the government of illegally blocking certain sites and online forums which were critical of its policies without warning the sites' owners first.

It goes on to criticise plans for a proposed Great Firewall of Pakistan and calls on the court to rule that no web content can be blocked without prior notice and that the public should be allowed to comment on any proposed online censorship before such action is taken.

The High Court petition comes as the Pakistani government flip flops over its controversial plans for a nationwide web filtering system.

The PTA had gone as far as publishing a request for proposals for the scheme, a move which forced some tech companies such as Websense to publically distance themselves from the project.

However, Pakistani civil rights group Bolo Bhi was (YouTube video) told by national assembly member Bushra Gohar that she had personally received verbal assurances from IT minister Farooq Awan that the plans had been withdrawn.

No public statement exists, however, and the PTA and Internet Providers Association (ISPAK) confirmed to the Express Tribune that they support such a system.

“A cost effective, automated and transparent system for blocking of blasphemous and objectionable contents is fully supported by PTA,” PTA chairman Muhammad Yaseen said in a statement.

“The current process of blocking, being manual and tedious, is difficult to implement and has its limitations.”

In the face of such conflicting messages, Bolo Bhi and several other groups including Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an open letter to the government earlier this month.

It argued that building a nationwide URL filtering and blocking system would have a grave impact on academia, businesses, trade, and civil society.

As members of civil society and organisations committed to ensuring the government upholds democratic principles in Pakistan, and with concerns about restrictions on privacy as well as access to information, we strongly urge the ICT R&D fund of the Ministry of IT to reconsider its decision to filter URLs in Pakistan and make a public commitment that they will not purchase the URL filtering and blocking technology. If the Pakistani government wants to further develop business, innovation, entrepreneurship, trade, and academia, it must realise the adverse effects this filtering system would have on these priorities, and hence, not go ahead with this plan.

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