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PTA_LogoThe nuisance created by the poorly-executed PTA campaign to filter SMS content had barely receded that now alarm bells have started ringing again among civil society members and online activists who feel that another government ploy, sort of a preemptive measure, is in the works to restrict the citizens access to information and freedom of expression. The bone of contention is the latest project advertised by the National ICT R&D Fund (Ministry of IT). The Fund has invited proposals from local academics, researchers and IT professionals for a $10 million grant to develop and deploy a "National URL Filtering and Blocking System". The system is supposed to have the capacity to filter and block upto 50 million websites, right from the IP backbones of PTCL and TWA. Their fears and apprehensions stem from the past when online crackdown vis-à-vis national security, pornography or blasphemy paved the way for blockage of other forms of speech and expression. For instance, rather than banning a facebook page for its blasphemous content in 2010, the whole of facebook website, Google search engine and YouTube videos were blocked in Pakistan. While the Funds intention to harness local talent is appreciated, the fact that there are no set criteria as to what is acceptable or desirable and what is not has rendered this project suspicious to many. Critics fear that there will always be a chance that arbitrary decision makers use such a powerful system to suppress political freedom and citizens activism. In a detailed conversation on the issue with BR Research, Sana Saleem - who is the CEO of Bolo Bhi (speak up), a Pakistani organisation focused on advocacy, policy and research - warned that besides political freedom, the tangible and intangible benefits of the internet to students, researchers, businesses, economy, entrepreneurship and cultural exchange may also vanish if powers of a blanket ban are there. "There has been no consultation with the stakeholders, and we don know who and what has prompted this initiative. There is no clarity on what kind of URLs will be blocked, especially when the terms like undesirable and ational security are so blurred. It will be a dangerous proposition when administrators of such system accumulate huge cache of information at their disposal. "Essentially, we do not support any kind of blanket censorship. If this is truly about national security, then this could only be legitimised through a proper legislation. Transparency in the process can only be acceptable if it is in the form of legislation. Rampant blocking and banning is censorship, with or without transparency," noted Ms. Saleem She feels that the government authorities would eventually need the expertise of international companies in this project, and has, therefore, written to the CEOs of international companies that specialise in such technologies, to discourage them for being part of an initiative that could potentially limit the freedoms of speech and information. Bytes for All, a Pakistani human rights organization having a focus on ICT, has also called on the service providers and international companies to "refrain from bidding for this proposed system and show their support for freedom of expression, speech and opinion in Pakistan". The organisation intends to join hands with others to influence the government to back down. Moreover, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international NGO that advocates freedoms of press and information, wrote a letter last week to Prime Minister Gilani to abandon this project. Mixing the underlying causes of popular revolts in North Africa and the Middle East (and other regional uprisings) with online activism and social networking platforms will be fallacious. Whatever the pretext, interception of communication (emails, phone calls, photos, videos and messages) has enormous potential of misuse and abuse, especially when there are gaps in legislation and loopholes in regulatory oversight.


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