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Pakistan needs comms security not restrictions

The Internet is becoming essential to modern life in Pakistan. These days, the loss of network access, whether for telephones or internet connectivity, soon starts to affect people's ability to do business or interact socially - and in the longer term is directly affects citizens' self-expression and self-determination. This is why we all saw such serious attempts by the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to cut off their people's access to the Internet.

In recent years the Government of Pakistan has repeatedly placed restrictions on the use of the Internet. Technically mediated services have been often subjected to restrictions ranging from government regulation, intervention, censorship and outright blocking.

In 2006, the Pakistani government imposed a blanket ban on the Blogspot platform (comprising around 10 million individual websites), after several hosted blogs posted images of the controversial Mohammad cartoons originally published in the Dutch newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The same year, the entire Wikipedia domain was blocked because one article (of approximately 3.5 million) contained information about the cartoons. This was only the first step of many. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has consistently banned Baloch news websites, and since July this year the Rolling Stone website has been blocked after it published a short blog post entitled ‘Pakistan’s Insane Military Spending’.

It is unfortunate that we have seen arbitrary decisions based on political and religious grounds that do not justify disruption of free flow of data affecting millions of lives from a diverse range of perspectives. We have seen a correspondingly severe approach when it comes to internet surveillance. Recently, the government declared its intention to ban the use of data encryption.  This has now left millions of citizens vulnerable to widespread cybercrime (against which encryption and VPNs provide effective shielding) in order to allow the government unfettered access to user data, ostensibly for ‘security reasons’.

This means that while the government sifts through user data looking for potential terrorism links, millions of citizens remain vulnerable to widespread cybercrime, against which encryption and VPNs provide effective shielding.

There are other worrying communications surveillance initiatives and plans.  The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has been a loyal customer of Narus, a company specializing in “dynamic network traffic intelligence and analytics software”, since 2007. Amongst other services, Narus helps its clients gain network control and data-interception abilities; its technology was apparently used during the ‘Arab Spring’ by the erstwhile governments of Egypt and Libya, who attempted to defeat the pro-democratic revolutionary movements by suppressing internet communications.

Going forward, the Government of Pakistan has to ensure that it is not going to spy and silence its citizens like the recently ousted governments of Mubarak and Gaddafi. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that there are effective laws that protect the rights to privacy, security, freedom of expression and unrestricted access to online content.

If national law does indeed dictate that Internet access be regulated, then it must be undertaken judiciously and with restraint. Sadly, this has not been the case so far.

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Comments

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Excellent article highlighting the issue. We need to bring to attention more issues before the govt plans to put a full blanked ban on it.

Great work Nighat!

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