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 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: