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Monday, May 21, 2012

Twitter.com restored in Pakistan by Government after domestic and global outcry against the blocking!

Twitter.com website services and access has been restored to the citizens of Pakistan after a 24 hour temporary ban. According to Pro-Pakistani.com here, the following is a tweet from the Interior Minister taking credit for lifting the ban that was unnecessary in the first place and the output of PTA official that thought he could be hero in the eyes of the nation:

Image from Pro-Pakistani blog here
Sadly enough, the ban was lifted after the domestic and international media was filled with news and complains from the citizens of Pakistan and the international community.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Twitter officially shutdown in Pakistan - Twitter Banned in Pakistan

Daily Jang reporting the Twitter Shutdown
Image Copyright Daily Jang Group Pakistan  (www.jang.com.pk)
As of 20th May 2012, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority PTA with permission from the Ministry of Information Technology MoIT upon the suggestion of PTA's Director General for Strategy and Development has allowed the full and blanket shutdown of the worlds most famous Social Media and Microblogging website Twitter.com to its audience in Pakistan. According to authorities, they had contacted Twitter.com to remove all offensive religious material but it has failed to comply to do so thus Twitter.com has been officially shutdown across Pakistan!

So far the news coming from various sources share that this has been done in lieu of raising awareness against the religious and contentious online content that was floated on Facebook on 20th May. The authorities are taking this step to register that no such activity will be tolerated that is against the religious sentiments of the citizens of Pakistan. This ban and shutdown of Twitter.com is intended to convince foreign companies and Internet Content providers globally to remove all such religiously offensive content to Muslims.

The Daily DAWN (Pakistan) reports here the Chairman PTA Dr. Yaseen has put the blame that the orders came from the Ministry of Information Technology MoIT Government of Pakistan yesterday on 19th May 2020. The reality of the situation is that this ban is believed to be suggested by a PTA official present during the meeting at the MoIT.

According to another report by the Associated Press, Dr. Yaseen stated that they had been negotiating with Twitter until last night, but they did not agree to remove the stuff, so they had to block it whereas the instructions to block the site came from Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and the ministry officials are still trying to make Twitter agree, and once they remove that objected material  the site is expected to be unblocked.

The Express Tribute reports here that MoIT has claimed that it attempted getting through to Twitter authorities and sent five faxes to the micro-blogging website but Twitter responded by saying that they “cannot stop any individual doing anything of this nature on the website”.

Various sources also reported that the Interior Minister Rehman Malik tweeted earlier in the morning that the government had no plans to impose restrictions on Twitter and Facebook assuring the citizens of Pakistan that both Twitter and Facebook will continue to be accessible throughout Pakistan. He also told his twitter stream followers not to believe in rumours. The Minister also remarked to a New York Times reporter's question claiming that there are reports that the government intended to restrict access to Twitter by saying that "Why (should) I even think of doing so?". PK Politics Blog posted a screenshot of the Minister's Tweets:

Image from the PK Politics Blog here

The Pakistani electronic media has quoted the Minister of IT Raja Parvez Ashraf that the government could restrict access to Twitter and Facebook as the sites were being used to circulate blasphemous caricatures. Last night, rumors were circulating that Facebook.com will also be shutdown as well as Google. Facebook.com was not taking strong steps to remove religiously offensive content to Muslims and Google.com was still bringing up searches and links to such content online.

The authorities claim to be in direct contact with the responsible personnel at Twitter.com and Facebook.com. Mark Zuckerberg already has a warrant for arrest in Pakistan and should be careful incase he wants to visit Pakistan for his honeymoon. On the other hand, PTA and MoIT continue to take positions for the citizen of Pakistan without consulting them through a multistakeholder or public consultation process. All such attempts have been backfiring on the reputation of Pakistan's Information Society and Regulators tainting it in the global Knowledge Economy.

Twitter.com is used by the Civil Society and Citizens of Pakistan to express their personal thoughts and opinions and the total blanket shutdown of Twitter.com is a fundamental human right violation preventing Pakistani Citizens both online and offline to express themselves using the Internet through their personal computers and mobile phone devices. Authorities are restricting access to Twitter.com without consulting the citizens of Pakistan through multistakeholder processes.

So far the the whole world and audience on the web is mocking Twitter.com's shutdown in Pakistan . The Internet and World Wide Web is flooded the world over with this news as Pakistan joins the league of countries that ban twitter.com and are considered to be repressing Freedom of Expression.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Automating Pakistan's Great Firewall from manual filtering to one button blanket censorship, gains for some while suffering for others!

Flag map of PakistanImage via Wikipedia
The latest outcry being heard around the world from Pakistan has been about the Request for Proposal for automating the country's National URL Filtering and Blocking System from manual to an updatable system across points of presence as mentioned here. Its being termed as an automated system to impose a single button blanket censorship of the Internet in Pakistan when and where required meaning the Internet can be shut down with one button, theoretically yes and practically no!

Firewalls and Reality Checks

With some colleagues, we have been quietly researching and intervening behind all this public rhetoric on finding out the facts and attempting to have a dialogue with the people who signed the approvals for this RFP. We have gone beyond the traditional all cry and no action crap and discussed the issue with experts and politicians. The answer, it is going to happen because the manual system has been place since the past seven years and this is an attempt to automate that manual system.

Cashing in on the opportunity and the usual suspects!
As usual, certain so called civil society groups that pop out of nowhere to cash the situation have found this as the perfect opportunity to create the perfect racket getting media attention and creating the the frenzy whereby they can acquire funds and support from foreign Human Rights and Freedom of Expression funders in the name of stopping censorship! Once again they appear to be distracting the world from reality. They have no idea what the masses believe in Pakistan and continue to ignore the actual public opinion. 

Manual Online Undesirable Content and URL Blocking, Filtering and Censorship

Originally, the present URL blocking system is complaint led by Internet users. There is no specific criteria through which PTA, the Ministry of IT and Telecom or anyone else can assess the literacy and Internet or World Wide Web usage levels. This deficiency can lead from registering a complaint filed by a skillful Internet User to a complaint by someone that may have never used the Internet frequently but heard someone complaining and felt it was their social or moral duty to make the authorities aware.

No baseline on number of URL blocking complaint requests lodged?

At the end of PTA, Ministry of ITand Telecom and ICT R&D Fund, we are yet to find any significant baseline to prove the state of demographics of thelodged complaints. From in depth research of the issue and consulting authorities, the URL blocking works by Internet Users filing complaints to the regulator PTA or have PTA ordered through the court direction for any undesirable website url or online content. This can be done by both aware and unaware citizens. These can be both types of citizens that are aware or unawre of their Human Rights or Privacy issues. They can go to both courts and PTA.

The regulator then has to evaluate and authenticate the content of anysuch reported URL/Website and then only can they issue directives to block access to that website. This original system is very much inplace and is open to all. So far we have been able to conclude that thousands of websites are blocked with the largest number being of pornographic content. Violations of Human Rights, Freedom of Expression etc become secondary in the regulators evaluation when the complaints are being actually lodged by individuals that may be aware or unaware of their rights.

Prime Minister led URL Blocking and Filtering Committee?

So far websites have been blocked in Pakistan for the past 6 years since 2006 when IPs were blocked for the first time. This affected hosting servers and IP ranges. Then there was an industry attempt to remove IP addresses and enable url filtering. Last year the ISPs were advised to install proxy blocking system. There was also a proposal and document floated around in 2010 for creating a Prime Minister led URL Blocking and Filtering Committee.

On the issue of the RFP while reading through the text, there is a feeling that some designated educational institution, research body or a hand picked company may already have been shortlisted to develop the system or simply a consortium led approach will be adopted to save face. This is not even based on a competition and appears to be well planned out. 

Is Automated Online Censorship already in place in Pakistan?

One thing to understand about URL and Internet Traffic Management systems using Deep Packet Inspection methods are that one has to pay per URL being blocked and that is charged by the organization managing the system for the government. Now, how will the government afford this? They are asking for a very huge system, larger then Boeing's Nauras Deep Inspection System already enforced on listening to Mobile Phone voice calls, SMS messages, blackberry communications so basically its surveillance at defense grade.

The industry wants it, the government wants it and so do the masses!

This RFP has been issued with consent of the organization's Board as we were able to verify this and the ICT Research and Development Fund's Board Member and ISP industry leader has been responding to me on public mailing lists. So one thing has to be understood that such a blocking system is already in place but this is an attempt to build a an automated system that will include three years operational and maintenance related financial costs which doesn't make sense for a developing country like Pakistan where the system is already in place. The ISP Industry say that they have already given the required funds to PTA and rumor is it stands at US$10million in funding to build the automated url blocking, filtering and censorship system.  

Following other Online Content Censorship Examples?

The interest for this system resembles the same systems implemented and enforced by some strict middle
 eastern countries. The current RFP is focused at a system to be federally administered without the intermediary PTA regulator. If this is run independently, it may be prone to target the political social media campaigns, election relevant content and expression, freedom of expression, partisan and bipartisan information, business specific,organization specific content etc. There seems to be no reaction so far in the electronic media and this is definitely an alarming situation.

Opportunity Exploiters, Vested Interests and blah blah

Somehow in the recent years, a certain group of people have turned the online content and url blocking, filtering and censorship national issue into an elitist, liberal and global issue literally deterring the international investment community from the economic growth opportunities in our country. This defames our country as well was sends the wrong message internationally that our govt or industry does not respond appropriately or adequately to our citizenry, social, political and economic environment.

The world should understand that......we stand strong!

There should be one clear understanding among all of us whether our thoughts are conservative, labor or liberal, that our economy needs growth so there can be more jobs, more human development combined with improvements in our thinking and perceptions. There is no other avenue beyond agriculture, minerals and technology that will make this happen and sustain it. 66% of this country is involved in the first two agriculture and minerals, the rest 33% is subject to or involved with technology in one way or the other. We are known for our craft in technology across the world like our neighboring countries.

We helped build the world!

This is only one end, on the other, just look at how Pakistani's have helped build the middle east with everything from concrete to technology and worked with all other South Asian country citizens. Those were due to our 2 decades of investment friendly, liberal and conducive information and communications technologies related policies and developments despite there were errors in policy planning. I am not concluding that there weren't problems but there were opportunities too that helped us all go a long way.

Is censorship good for society? It really depends!

Prevention of access to undesirable online content is based on social and cultural norms of the citizens of a state. There is no society or community in the world without a certain level of censorship. Vast sources of evidence is available online of the level of blocking, filtering and censorship that happens across the west and in non-Muslim countries. I personally believe that we stand together and will always stand together as a nation when it comes to someone outside our borders or inside trying to attack our religion or the beliefs of our nation's minorities, our social and cultural values as well as morals and our country's sovereignty.

What is the real issue and what should be given attention

What we are facing in this ICT R&D Fund's RFP for an automated blocking-filtering-censorship-system case is to understand the pressing question, that do we want to give a govt within an immature democratic environment that can tilt anytime into chaos or dictatorship the full blanket control to shut down and censor our Internet? Our governance system has not been able to put its house in order during its tenure and now we are approaching an election. If such a system did go underway, and the elections are around the corner, it will be automatically stifled with the new government.

Is another Arab Spring required here?

Secondly, do we want to be part of what happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring, do we want our ISPs to be party in Human Rights related violations, do we want the world to know that our Internet industry actively participates in initiatives that can plunge the ICT industry and other avenues of life into a single button control shutdown and thus all international investments in ICTs will also be prone to this
blanket system?

Exploiters are exploiters, they will never understand the real situation!

From what I am monitoring throughout the International Media and Information Sources, as mentioned earlier, a certain group of people have literally made ICT publications print that International Companies should not bid for the system and can you literally believe that they never even read the RFP that its a system that will be built indigenously in Pakistan. Of course there are streams of knowledge and research that come from abroad but the ISP industry and ICT R&D fund wants it to be developed in the country by local companies. The messages these people have been sending out is that DON'T INVEST IN PAKISTAN, that hurts all of us in the technology industry and society equally. This indeed becomes an anti-state message and should be intervened upon.

Stop the situation Exploiters now!

The issue of undesirable and how far undesirable can be extended to remains a national debate. Do we want online blanket censorship or not is also a national debate. To ward of international investments and interest by global business towards our country is an anti-state activity by a handful of opportunists and should be condemned and responded to intelligently and firmly. These are the very groups with the intention of shining their businesses create and give the impression globally that our citizenry is ignorant and violently aggressive and has no brains of its own.

Is there need for a detailed and constructive National Dialogue?

The issue of the ICT R&D Fund's RFP backed by the ISP industry requires some extensive dialogue, it could have happened earlier and it didn't but that does not mean that this cannot still happen at the National level in the same manner that we discuss our nation's internal issues and problems as well as work towards finding common solutions.

Need for a Public Consultation and Dialogue, Public led Advisory Framework and Committee?

We would urge to the Telecom and Internet community that there needs to be dialogue that did not happen or was not carried out earlier and it can still happen and should happen. There needs to be clarity on the extent of such systems. Look the technology to do this is already there in the Free and Open Source Community and we do not want to point to it just as yet. These activities can be managed in a public interest way by developing a strategy with the citizens, academia, research, industry and government. It literally will work because all of us want the same for our nation, to work together, to build it together and to sustain the future of our children showing to them that we took the right stances and did the right things to help build a sustainable and strong nation.

International Media Frenzy

Finally what you all have been reading in the Register here, Forbes here, Tribune, Wall Street Journal WSJ, New York Times NYT here, the Times Magazine, Divanee here and by others as the same is all just a bunch of misreported crap. Once again the real issue has been ignored and a group has raised the usual blah blah instead of actually doing something concrete, creating the dialogue, stepping up and calling for a national public consultation where a more public consent oriented framework could have been proposed.

What the Pakistani Masses Think, Wake up!!!

Here is what the masses of Pakistan are thinking expressed through ProPakistani.pk here and here. Get your facts straight, there was no call for international companies to bid, read the RFP again! Secondly, this is an internal issue for Pakistani's, it will be solved in Pakistan by the public for the public!

Just for your reference, here are the RFP Documents:

Monday, January 16, 2012

SOPA Strike - Web Goes on Strike

Tim Berners-Lee: The World Wide Web - Opportun...Image by Fräulein Schiller via Flickr
Though this bit of news will not be of much interest to many of the global Internet and World Wide Web audience that is currently trying to find out that who will be the next Miss America and Miss Wisconsin or what happened to the cruise ship Costa Cruises but still, the biggest websites on the Web are preparing for a strike! Yes the Web will be going on strike against SOPA.

As shared here on SOPA Strike website, on January the 18th there is going to be an all-out strike with websites across the Internet will be going totally dark protesting against the internet censorship bills currently being pushed in the US Congress namely SOPA and PIPA.

So far, many of the of the largest websites in the world are participating including but not limited to Reddit, Mozilla etc. with many more that can be encouraged to join through various other ways such as leading micro-blogging platforms and a popular collaboratively-written encyclopedia but still they need a bit of a a nudge.

If you want to keep the Internet and World Wide Web functioning and protect freedom of expression online, you must support the world's largest online Web Strike Against SOPA and blog, tweet, darken your website and share with your friends across the world through status updates on leading social media websites. This is for the world!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Politics of whether the Internet is a fundamental Human Right or merely a tool to help free expression? Vint Cerf creates a stir in the Internet and Human Rights community!

human rights
Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right stated Vinton G. Cerf in a recent opinion article in the New York Times NYT here that attempts to build and clarify a single sided relation between the Internet, Human Rights and Civil Liberties. His article created a stir globally for people that believe in the fundamental human right to communicate and express freely while access to the Internet itself being a fundamental human right.

Vint's attempt to differentiate between the right to access, using a tool, freedom of expression and Human Rights in general with regards to the Internet is interesting but it also provokes the question that whether  paper a human right or is a pencil a human right or is access to both a paper or pencil a human right?

In my humble opinion, this article attempts to recognize the layer of abstractness between Technology as only a tool of the current age and Human Rights and Civil Liberties as universal in order to understand
both the technical and civil roles.

Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself?
The larger point that Vint mentions that "technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself" says that there is something of more humane nature and need than just the technology in between. It just outlines in the following order:
  • Human Beings as Citizens,
  • Recognition of Human Rights (the right to freely communicate, share and express),
  • Technology (the tools),
  • Access (being able to access that tool),
  • Policy (government plans, regulations and action to achieve connectivity to the tool for its citizens),
  • Cost Control and Management (the dynamics of economy, demand and supply, market production and distribution),
  • Technology Evolves (update and upgrade both knowledge and infrastructure),
  • Waste (dumping old technology?)
  • Changing Needs (as human society progresses with technology)
  • Human Rights & Civil Liberty Violations, did the Internet violate those or did governments and corporations violate those?
Who will take the responsibility for providing access to the Internet and Web?
At the fundamental level, it is the duty or obligation of every government to create an enabling environment where its citizens can live and practice their fundamental human rights, can freely connect with each other, can freely share and interchange information with each other with the fear of violation of their fundamental rights (again greatly regulated under national constitutions). The tools then evolve and are used as Human Civilization embraces more and more scientific developments of its various needs.

Self created obstacles to the Internet?
For example, despite the tall claims of my country's telecom regulatory bodies that Mobile Penetration reaches nearly half of the country's population, smart phones are both expensive and a luxury accessible to only a certain affording class while even for them Internet access is a luxury. The governance of the telecom actually delays and prevents society to shift to 3G or 4G access which again increases the access to luxurious 3G and 4G compliant technology. There really is no line that can be drawn here.

The true cost of Internet Connectivity for the developing?
In my recent visit to Kabul, 1MB of Internet connectivity stood at US$200 to US$300. In Pakistan, that is at only US$12. For Afghanistan to achieve that price and make it accessible for its citizens will remain a dream for many years to come. Why, Pakistan is population wise the 6th most populated country in the world and thus the 6th largest market for Internet and Telecom Services. The market in Pakistan has evolved only after insufficient struggle to provide basic human needs and infrastructure. In the cities for example, we have had less and less electricity since 2007. In rural regions where over 66% of national population resides, electricity may be available only for 2-4 hours max in a 24hr day.

Is electricity a fundamental Human Right or simply access to it?
For both Pakistan and Afghanistan, electricity is a major issue and would electricity be subject to being an Human Right or a basic need for Humans to progress and participate in today's post-industrialized global economy? Is electricity a tool to run a bunch of other tools that help improve one's life or is it a human right that using it or not using it might end me up in jail because I did not use it to express myself? Electricity is a basic human need in today's world. I can still express with or without it. I can use solar power to charge my phone and send that particular SMS that can go viral. Then access to solar batteries would indeed be a challenge.

Another important discussion here is that if humanity uses electricity to build a technology on which all human ideas, expression and knowledge is stored, how can I access that? Do I have the fundamental right to access that human knowledge? Will I have to use electric powered tools to communicate in order to practice my fundamental human right to communicate? Once I can communicate, how do I use these tools to freely share and raise my concerns or help others so how can I practice my freedom of speech.

That has been the thin red line that prevails within the Human Rights Declaration and Internet Rights per say debate today. Is the tool the fundamental character or the tools to enable the right to access knowledge, the right to communicate, the right to freedom of speech? As Vint Cerf says, as these rights are universal to humanity, they are not bound to any particular technology at any particular time that also links Internet is valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

What are the Ethical Responsibilities of the Technical Community?
I taught thousands of Pakistani Web Masters and Internet Engineers from the very beginning of Internet and World Wide Web WWW penetration here since 1995 and have managed the country's critical Internet infrastructure in a government body in the past and continue to train governments and organizations on the use of Free & Open Source Software FOSS and Open Standards (Open ICT Ecosystems). It was both my professional and personal obligation to empower my fellow citizens with the knowledge and ethics of data, information and knowledge creation while maintaining safety and showing others how to use information while keeping safe while the Internet and WWW continued to spread.

To that end, I believe Vint Cerf simply says, protect existing civil and human rights without calling access to the tool a human right. Accessing that tool and expressing on it might get me jailed or killed, in our part of the world, it does. We may have to first "help" our governments first appreciate our fundamental Human Rights and Civil Liberties is what it directs at......but it does miss the point!

Is Vint Cerf using an Internet Infrastructure Protection Shield to protect Unilateralism?
Vint Cerf and his followers may be attempting to usher the global Internet community away from the notion that access to critical Internet infrastructure resources may be treated as fundamental Human Rights and an important component of today's understanding of Civil Liberties in a highly connected and networked world.

An example to this end may be various countries across the globe regarding broadband as a right for every citizen in their countries. Vint's notion may move on to actually defy that basic necessities of life are not rights at all? The philosophy being propagated here may just be an attempt to continue defense of the the unilateral control on the Internet as if someone rightly says that "thou shalt not touch what is not broken"!

Vint's article may vaguely be an attempt to keep away the focus of Human Rights and Civil Liberty activists and advocates from making the Internet and its critical infrastructure a globally shared responsibility.