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Fighting the Great Firewall of Pakistan

By Rebecca MacKinnon
April 10th 2012

It takes a strong stomach and a thick skin to be a female activist fighting online censorship in Pakistan. Sana Saleem has both.

The 24-year-old founder of a Karachi-based free expression group Bolo Bhi has been accused of supporting “blasphemy.” On Twitter, a chilling message made the rounds last month: “this @sanasaleem is a prostitute who feature in porn movies #throwacidonsana.” Her photo was posted in pornography forums.

None of this has fazed Sana, who in conjunction with several other young Pakistani blogger-activists had launched a successful campaign that has shamed the government into halting plans for a national Internet censorship system. A long-time contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices Online, in March Saleem joined forces with other groups including the Pakistan-based social justice group Bytes For All and other activists like the dentist-blogger Awab Alvi, a.k.a. “Teeth Maestro,” who has been campaigning against censorship since 2006. Their success is a victory for free speech, and not only in Pakistan. It holds lessons for activists around the world who are fighting uphill battles against censorship schemes initiated by governments that claim to be acting in the public interest, and who have support from influential political constituencies.

This is not exactly a culture war of the young versus the old. Teenagers are often willing and even enthusiastic foot soldiers for the pro-censorship camp. After writing multiple letters to the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority requesting censorship of adult websites, the pious 15-year old computer nerd Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah was asked to compile specific examples. He and his friends did their patriotic duty and scanned the web for porn — producing a list of 780,000 websites that they sent to the PTA in March.

Shortly thereafter, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority issued a request for proposals inviting companies and research institutions to bid on a “National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System” (URL stands for “uniform resource locator” — geek speak for “web-page address”) capable of blocking up to 50 million web pages. After facing a month-long campaign against the scheme combining grassroots social media activism with support from international free speech groups and even multinational companies, the government backed down. Last week, an IT ministry official made a verbal commitment to a member of Parliament that plans for the censorship system have been shelved. Bolo Bhi is seeking to solidify this victory by seeking a high-court injunction against the PTA for censoring the Internet in a manner that violates Pakistan’s own laws and constitution.

Internet censorship is not new in Pakistan: The government has been doing it in a haphazard way since 2006, provoking an outcry when Blogspot, then Pakistan’s most popular blogging platform, was blocked wholesale as part of a campaign against “blasphemy” on the Internet. In 2007, former president Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and placed the country under a state of emergency after being re-elected in an indirect, widely boycotted election. “Social media was the only source of information” on many issues due to the heavy censorship of mainstream media during that period, says Saleem, who started blogging “about sensitive issues” in 2008 and quickly became part of a national and global movement for online free expression. While she is heartened by the latest victory against censorship, she told me in a Skype interview from her home in Karachi that Pakistan faces a critical moment in a national debate about how the Internet — and digital networks more broadly — should be governed.

Pakistan is by no means alone, of course. “States around the world are trying to gain more control over the Internet,” Saleem observed. “In Western societies such as the U.S., national security is used as one of the deciding factors. In Islamic countries it is religion. I feel religion and national security are used as ploys for states to muscle in more control.” She has some battle-hardened advice for anti-censorship activists everywhere.

Focus on facts and public education.

A moral argument about whether censorship is good or bad deteriorates quickly into accusations about who is more or less patriotic, moral, pious, and so on. “Noise making without a strategy is almost always likely to backfire, making it easier for the state to dismiss and suppress our voices,” Saleem says. Avoiding emotional or moralistic statements and sticking to facts was the winning approach. When censorship supporters insisted the new system would only be used to block “blasphemous” content that no moral person could possibly support, anti-censorship groups pointed to the PTA’s long record of censoring political, religious, and national security content. That record has been well documented by global researchers, including the Open Net Initiative.

Bolo Bhi also wisely highlighted the government’s lack of transparency and accountability in this case — implying that this is a broader problem with which many stakeholders in society have long-running concern. The issue, at the end of the day, is not whether or not to censor but a matter of accountable democratic governance — of the digital world as well as the physical. In their call for transparency they concluded:

We don’t believe the internet should be a free for all (criminals, child pornography and scam); there are limits to content but a blanket filtering of up to ’50 million URLs’ with no transparency is not the answer. We are a functional democracy and in the presence of stakeholders and experts we demand the ICT R&D Fund and the Ministry of IT consult every sector before moving forward with such an initiative.

Such tactics have contributed, Saleem says, to today’s situation in which “the authorities seem to be shifting blame amongst each other” for the censorship scheme.

2. Appeal to commercial and economic interests.

A stroke of strategic brilliance was to enlist the help of the international business community. Saleem contacted the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which helped to relay and publicize an open letter to the CEOs of eight multinational technology companies that sell equipment and software often used for Internet censorship, requesting a public commitment to stay out of Pakistan’s censorship scheme. Five of them promised not to participate in bidding on the project. (The other three, Huawei and ZTE of China and Netsweeper of Canada, have remained silent.) Global media attention around the corporate response, especially a statement headlined “Say NO to Government Censorship of the Internet in Pakistan” by Websense, which sells web-content filtering and network-security products, caused the Pakistani media to sit up and pay attention. Saleem also enlisted the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to core principles of free speech and privacy in the technology sector whose members include Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo in addition to Websense, which issued a statement calling on companies not to participate. Negative views of Pakistan expressed by prominent members of the global business community are taken more seriously by government functionaries than are appeals by human rights groups.

In calling for government transparency and accountability, Bolo Bhi also pointed out that Pakistani as well as international businesses have been hurt by Internet censorship in the past due to sloppy censorship techniques that caused commercial websites to be blocked even though they published nothing related to the sort of content the government claimed it was censoring. They argued that the PTA’s failure to consult with the business community before implementing such a scheme showed a lack of concern for Pakistani businesses that increasingly depend on the Internet. They also pointed to cases in other countries where national blocking schemes hamper research and education. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, excessive filtering of “obscene” content has denied medical students access to information about breast-cancer research.

3. Call the shots: Tell international groups what is and isn’t helpful.

Pakistan’s anti-censorship activists were able to rally a chorus of condemnation from free speech and Internet freedom groups as well as a series of largely negative reports about the Pakistani government’s efforts in the global media. But the campaign’s success was due to the fact that grassroots Pakistani groups were in the driver’s seat — not outsiders.

“It is important to engage the global community but not to involve international groups in shouting at the government, which could easily be translated as an intervention,” Saleem observes. She asked her contacts in the human rights and business world to “speak to our government about the repercussions of such a system on [the] economy, academia, innovation and trade because an argument based on democracy and freedom of expression especially from outside is often dismissed.”

Saleem is optimistic that she and her comrades will convince the government to issue a formal statement announcing an official end the censorship scheme. “Right now we seem to be in a stronger position,” she says. The lessons learned from the Pakistani struggle against censorship are very relevant, she believes, in Tunisia and Egypt, where newly elected politicians are now calling for censorship on religious grounds.

As in Pakistan, Tunisian and Egyptian human rights activists are concerned that any censorship mechanisms, once put in place, will inevitably be abused for political purposes no matter what censorship proponents claim to the contrary. Whether anti-censorship activists in those countries and beyond succeed in the same way their Pakistani comrades did depends on whether they can devise a winning strategy that fits their own countries’ political, economic, and religious circumstances. The struggle for Internet freedom may be global, but stands the highest chance of success when driven locally.

Rebecca MacKinnon is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a former CNN bureau chief in Tokyo and Beijing, co-founder of the citizen media network Global Voices, and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Originally published in Foreign Policy

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