Freedom of the Internet? Online Regulation and Censorship in Pakistan

Faheem Zafar, Research Coordinator for Bytes for All Pakistan, analyzes Internet regulation and censorship in Pakistan, focusing on recent attempts to curb civil liberties through Internet filtration.

Despite the appearance of freedom of speech, significant control of today’s traditional media in Pakistan still lies with the establishment and its agencies. Pakistan has a long history of dictatorships, with regimes using intensive oppression to control people’s expression, actions, and identity. Despite some success in Pakistan’s democracy, most recently the exchange of power from one democratically elected government to another, government control over communication channels remain a key issue.

The past decade brought  a powerful, dynamic information flow system into the country – the Internet.  The Internet carried the promise of giving people what they were never allowed to enjoy— the power to make information source choices on their own. According to the latest statistics, Internet penetration in Pakistan is estimated to be well above 15.5%, which is even greater than its neighbor India[1]. Furthermore, youth make up around 65% of Pakistani population, and the majority of Internet users come from this population set[2]. Through the Internet, the stifled youth found fresh air—a new medium where they could express themselves, explore the world around them, and discover the diversity of thoughts that people around the world had to offer, with few restrictions.  Many blogs, citizen’ journalism channels, social media campaigns, and innovative clubs and startups began sprouting over the Internet. Pakistani cyberspace started resembling the vibrant society that previous generations had failed to savor.

However as citizens started adopting this new communications medium, the government began finding excuses to take control of the Internet. The  Pakistani government actively starting placing blocks across the Internet, beginning with the government owned Pakistani Telecommunication Company Ltd.’s (PTCL) attempt to ban Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in 2002.

The first globally significant incident of censorship occurred in 2006 when BlogSpot was blocked in Pakistan after after the publication of allegedly blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in Denmark. From the government’s perspective, this incident gave them a long awaited go ahead to execute widespread censorship using religion as cover. This censorship based on religion gained approval of the uneducated majority’s volatile Muslim sentiment. Since 2006 a number of websites are or have been periodically blocked because they include documentation of historical drawings or paintings of religious personalities or offer opinions from other religions on topics such as Abrahamic concepts of Hell and angels. In 2010, Wikipedia and Facebook were blocked due to a Facebook event titled “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Youtube, the most popular video sharing platform in Pakistan, heavily used for entertainment, education, business, and citizen journalism, was banned under the pretext of blasphemy several months before the general elections. This ban still continues and follows previous bans of this website in 2008 and 2010.

Protection of religious sentiment paved way for Internet censorship in other realms. For example, countless websites raising critical questions or comments on the government or military corruption were banned. Currently, several important websites about the Balochistan issue are banned in Pakistan because they focus on reporting state led atrocities in the province. Similarly, a large number of websites on progressive and alternative discourse are also viewed as a threat to the country’s ideology, and are inaccessible to the citizens.

A recent research report published by Pakistani human rights NGO, Bytes for All, in collaboration with the Citizen Lab in Canada, revealed that Pakistani government agencies have been operating Canadian-based URL filtering technology Netsweeper. Key findings in the report outline how Pakistan’s largest telecommunication provider, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), has Netsweeper products installed on its network.  Content related to “human rights, sensitive religious topics, and independent media” are primary targets for this filtering.[3] Technologies such as Netsweeper are not just limited to censorship, extending into surveillance and privacy violations, with involvement of even more dangerous technologies such as Finfisher. Earlier this year Bytes for All, Pakistan started public interest litigation in collaboration with Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) at the Lahore High Court. Bytes for All and MLDI cited the curtailing of net freedom as a violation of the constitution and globally accepted human rights of freedom of expression and access to information. In order to gather international support, Bytes for All, Pakistan also wrote a letter of allegation to the Special Rapporteur of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression at the UN, Frank La Rue, to explain the situation on ground regarding violations of individual freedoms in Pakistan.

After eleven hearings and continuous protesting, the challenge persists.  The fight for the restoration of civil liberties over the Internet continues with no visible end; however, hope remains.  In the end, it is important to realize that the precedent set as an outcome of this case will strongly shape the future of net freedom in Pakistan. That being said, whatever the result, it’s a tedious journey, but civil society appears committed to restoring the rights of the citizens.

//Faheem Zafar

[1] “Asia Marketing Research, Internet Usage, Population Statistics and Facebook Information.” Asia Internet Stats Facebook Subscribers and Population Statistics. Internet World Stats, 2012. Web.

[2] “UNDP and The Youth: Pakistan.” UNDP. United Nations Development Programme, 2008. Web.

[3] “O Pakistan, We Stand on Guard for Thee: An Analysis of Canada-based Netsweeper’s Role in Pakistan’s Censorship Regime.” Munk School of Global Affairs, 20 June 2013. Web.


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    Nice article


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