Category Archives: Bytes for All

Bytes for All is a Pakistan-based human rights organization with a focus on information and communications technologies (ICTs).

B4A files suit against UK government

Cyber Stewards Network partner Bytes for All (B4A) is working together with Privacy International (PI) to sue the government of the United Kingdom over their Tempora surveillance program. Tempora is the code name for a project initiated by Britain’s signal intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). It allows for access by the GCHQ to cable networks passing through the UK, including phone and Internet traffic. The massive amount of data collected through this program is also made available to GCHQ’s American counterpart, the National Security Agency.

B4A and PI have argued that the Tempora program violates the European Convention on Human Rights’ privacy safeguards. They also argue that the program directly violates the limits of lawful surveillance outlined in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which regulates the power of British authorities in conducting surveillance. Another major criticism is that it “discriminate[s] against non-UK nationals,” meaning that they “currently receive even fewer legal protections than the communications of those who reside in the UK,” even though the cables monitored by the GCHQ carry a significant amount of international web traffic. B4A highlighted their own organization as an example of how the program disproportionately targets foreign nationals. As some of B4A’s Internet traffic goes through the UK, especially traffic routed through Virtual Private Networks based in Great Britain, their communication is liable for interception and monitoring. Given the sensitive nature of their human rights work in Pakistan involving confidential correspondences with lawyers, NGOs, public officials, partner organizations, and other stakeholders, B4A sees the potential for scrutiny by foreign intelligence agencies as particularly alarming.

The case has been lodged with the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal based on an earlier suit lodged by PI over the Tempora program. The suit is asking that the program be made illegal and that the GCHQ destroys all unlawfully obtained material. B4A has lodged similar complaints in Pakistan regarding secret surveillance programs. In May 2013, the organization lodged a petition with the Lahore High Court asking the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the country’s telecommunications regulatory agency, to investigate the presence in Pakistan of FinFisher, a commercial surveillance software. In October 2013, B4A initiated a contempt of court charge against the government for not appearing in court to address the petition.

 

Regional Consultation on Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Asia

On November 21-23, 2013, Cyber Steward Network partner Bytes for All (B4A) will be participating in the “Asia Regional Consultation on ‘Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties’” held in Bangkok, Thailand. Working in collaboration with other civil society organizations such as ICT Watch, Global Partners Digital, Association for Progressive Communications and the Thai Netizen Network, the event will focus on three issues relevant to free expression cyberspace in Asia: access to the Internet, online surveillance, and political-electoral communication.

The event will feature Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. One of the objectives of the consultation will be to assess ways in which participants can best push forward the recommendations of the La Rue’s report on digital surveillance. The report urges states to strengthen existing laws on privacy and regulate the commercialization of surveillance software. The event will also highlight progress made on recommendations stemming from the La Rue’s previous report on access to information, which urges states to eliminate barriers to Internet access, discourage blocking and other means of filtering content, and encourage digital literacy. As an output, the event will produce and collect recommendations from participants on the concept of political-electoral communication for presentation to the UN General Assembly in 2014.

Bytes for All Condemns Instant Messaging Ban

Cyber Steward partner organization Bytes for All (B4A), based in Pakistan, joined with ARTICLE 19 to condemn a proposal developed by the government of Sindh Province for a three-month ban on instant messaging apps Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp. The provincial government maintained that this proposed ban is part of an effort to block access to networks used by criminals and terrorists for their activities. Legal experts in Pakistan argue that the ban is legally justifiable as the 1996 Telecommunications (Reorganisation) Act allows communication services to be suspended for security concerns. However, B4A and ARTICLE 19 have criticized the proposal as incompatible with international human rights standards.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Pakistan is a signatory, accepts restrictions on free expression and access to information only if these restrictions are legally based, implemented for a legitimate aim, and are completely proportionate to those aims. B4A and ARTICLE 19 argue that the blanket ban on these services is extreme and disproportionate, and is therefore in violation of a central tenet of the Covenant. Furhan Hussain, coordinator for advocacy and outreach for B4A, also described the proposed ban as a “blow to the human rights and civic liberties of people.”

Other civil society organizations, politicians, and journalists also voiced their objections to the proposal. Pakistani advocacy group Bolo Bhi criticized the move, saying that the ban will negatively impact the local economy and families who rely on instant messaging platforms to communicate with members living abroad. The Sindh government has also been accused of being unclear as to how the ban will practically inhibit criminal and terrorist communication in the province. Other commentators have noted that many websites and pages associated with militant groups remain active, which raises questions as to the government’s intentions for and efficacy of the ban.

While Sindh’s Information Minister Sharjeel Memon has expressed his regrets for the “inconvenience” caused by the proposed ban, the province’s government has pledged to contact the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in order to move ahead with the blocking of the three messaging services. Pakistan’s Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has stated that he is not in favour of any ban on messaging applications due to the country’s ineffective experience in jamming mobile communications to combat violent activity. The Interior Ministry will, however, consider the Sindh government’s proposal to see “how much significance the demand carries.” It is unclear when this ban is supposed to come into effect.

Update on Bytes for All Censorship and Surveillance Cases

In January 2013, Cyber Steward partner Bytes for All (B4A) submitted a petition to the Lahore High Court to challenge Internet censorship in the country. This case, in collaboration with the Media Legal Defense Initiative, a non-governmental organisation which helps journalists and independent media outlets around the world defend their rights, highlighted the ongoing censorship of YouTube in Pakistan. The popular video-sharing site has been blocked since 2012 since YouTube refused to remove the controversial anti-Islamic “Innocence of Muslims” video.

After months of deliberations, the Lahore High Court has decided to move the case to a larger bench presided by three or five judges, a move B4A sees as indicating how serious the stakes of the petition are, as cases presided by a full bench of judges “carry greater weight in terms of judgment.” B4A pledges to pursue the case as a constitutional issue and hopes for the speedy end to the blocking of YouTube in Pakistan. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Senator Pervaiz Rashid stated recently that the government is not interested in prolonging the YouTube ban and that Pakistanis “will hear good news soon.” Rashid then clarified that the ban will be overturned only after the installation of filters to block blasphemous and other objectionable content online. Last year, the Pakistani Ministry of Information Technology called for bids on a national URL filtering system. Research by the Citizen Lab found that filtering products produced by Netsweeper, a Canadian company, have been installed on the networks of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), the country’s largest telecommunications corporation.

B4A is also initiating a contempt charge against the government for not appearing at court in regards to the ongoing FinFisher petition. The court ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the country’s telecommunications regulatory agency, to investigate FinFisher’s presence in Pakistan. The petition also asks for accountability from other corporate and government entities, including the Federation of Pakistan, through the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Information Technology, and the Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL).FinFisher, a product advertised as “governmental IT intrusion” software, is marketed and sold to law enforcement and intelligence agencies by the UK-based Gamma Group.  Research conducted by the Citizen Lab on the presence of FinFisher found the software present in 36 countries across the globe, including Pakistan.

 

Access Is My Right!: Bytes for All Launches Campaign Against Internet Filtering and Online Censorship in Pakistan

B4A - Prosperous Pakistan

Cyber Steward partner Bytes for All (B4A) has launched “Access Is My Right” — an advocacy campaign to engage Pakistani citizens on Internet censorship, privacy, and freedom of expression in the country. The campaign calls on citizens to raise awareness of information controls by sharing campaign visuals across the Internet, especially on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

B4A describes the campaign as “a call for [a] larger human rights movement in the country and [for] citizens to fight the ongoing censorship as it will further take its toll on already compromised civil liberties in the country.”

The campaign features original art pieces by local artist Anny Zafar that highlight government practices and policies that limit the right to freedom of expression and information as guaranteed by the Pakistani constitution. It also complements larger campaigns that B4A has launched in response to threats to user rights, such as online filtering and surveillance.

Bytes for All (B4A) actively campaigns against the use of information controls in Pakistan. In recent years, the Pakistani government has blocked YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and certain pages on Flickr and Wikipedia over content deemed to be threatening to national security or considered blasphemous. The Pakistani government has also on two occasions imposed cellphone communication bans in the name of national security.

In January 2013, B4A and the Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI) submitted a petition to the Lahore High Court challenging the government’s censorship of YouTube and other websites, claiming that Internet censorship is a violation of civil and political rights.

B4A’s Country Director, Shahzad Ahmad, has pointed out that this case is vital for upholding democratic rights and principles in Pakistan: “YouTube was shut down to try and control the news of massive corruption and human rights violations in the country. In Pakistan breaking news often first comes on citizen journalism platforms and not on mainstream media. YouTube has helped spread stories of human rights abuses, such as extra-judicial killings, and corruption, so from that perspective these channels are very important.” These issues have been highlighted in some of the artwork for the Access Is My Right! campaign.

B4A - Our Tube   B4A - YouTube Ban
These Access Is My Right! campaign posters highlights why the ban on YouTube violates the principles of right to information and freedom of expression.

In June 2013, research by the Citizen Lab in conjunction with B4A found that filtering software developed by the Canada-based company Netsweeper is deployed on a network operated by Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited, Pakistan’s largest telecom company and operator of its Internet Exchange Point. Netsweeper is used for national level filtering that restricts access to content with political and social themes, including websites related to human rights, sensitive religious topics, and independent media. This development is significant because of the possibility that such censorship will be extended to lower-level ISPs in the country.

B4A has actively campaigned against Pakistan’s national filtering system since its proposal in 2012. Recently, it has raised concerns over Netsweeper filtering technology in the country. B4A submitted Citizen Lab’s Netsweeper research to the Lahore High Court as well as all relevant UN Special Mandate holders. The Access Is My Right! campaign has been used to raise public awareness about Netsweeper in Pakistan.

B4A - O Pakistan   B4A - Netsweeper
Access Is My Right’s Netsweeper campaign posters

Access Is My Right! also draws attention to B4A’s work around promoting privacy rights in Pakistan. In 2013, The Citizen Lab found evidence of two FinFisher command and control servers in Pakistan. FinFisher is a “governmental IT intrusion” software that can exfiltrate data, intercept e-mail and instant messaging communications, and spy on users through webcams and microphones. Although the presence of FinFisher command and control servers in the country does not necessarily imply that Pakistani government agencies are operating it, its presence is alarming given Pakistan’s lack of strong privacy laws and data protection legislation.

B4A - FinFisherAccess Is My Right’s FinFisher campaign poster illustrates how surveillance technologies violate the right to privacy.

B4A submitted a writ petition to the Lahore High Court, expressing concerns over increasing threats to citizen privacy, absence of individual protections and the violations of basic human rights granted by the country’s constitution, while questioning the existence of FinFisher in the country.This effort resulted in the court ordering the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to investigate the use of FinFisher in Pakistan.

Access Is My Right! has garnered significant support, with the campaign posters being shared across social media sites. To learn more about the campaign, visit: http://www.accessismyright.pk.

 

Bytes for All Challenges Censorship in Pakistani Court

 A poster from B4A’s “Access is My Right” campaign criticizing the ban on YouTube.

The Citizen Lab has documented a pattern of Internet filtering in Pakistan that is inconsistent and intermittent with with filtering primarily targeted at content deemed to be a threat to national security and at religious content considered blasphemous. In recent years, Twitter, Facebook, and certain pages on Flickr and Wikipedia have been periodically blocked in the country due to what was considered blasphemous content circulating on those sites. Bytes for All (B4A), has been campaigning for the online rights of Pakistani citizens and an active participant in the debate on the use of information communications technologies for sustainable development and strengthening human rights movements in the country.

In January 2013, B4A collaborated with the Media Legal Defense Initiative, a non-governmental organisation which helps journalists and independent media outlets around the world defend their rights, in submitting a petition to the Lahore High Court claiming that the civil and political rights of Pakistanis have been violated in the government’s censoring of various popular sites on the Internet. The censorship of YouTube as a consequence of the site hosting the controversial Innocence of Muslims video in particular was highlighted by the groups. B4A Country Director Shahzad Ahmad, however, argued that the ban is an excuse to “curtail, limit and curb citizen freedom of expression” in Pakistan. Reports by B4A on the court proceedings have indicated that part of the motivation for banning the entire YouTube site was based on the difficulty posed by blocking individual URLs.

The court’s District Attorney General asked the court on April 2013 to dismiss the petition on the grounds that B4A had appealed to Frank La Rue — UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression — through a written Letter of Allegation calling for the end of website filtering in Pakistan. The judge denied this appeal and the court case continues.

Further hearings by the court in August 2013 yielded little movement as Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman and her secretary failed to appear before the Lahore High Court. Around the same time, the Minister also stated that there were no plans to unblock YouTube, and that the government is interested in developing software that can automatically block objectionable content.

When requested for a comment on the court case, Google made a statement saying that “It is Google’s goal to offer local versions of YouTube to more places worldwide, but it takes time…The localization process can be lengthy as we research laws and build relationships with local content creators.”

A hearing on September 19 has been scheduled for the Lahore High Court. Further updates to this ongoing case will be posted as they arise.

 

Netsweeper in Pakistan

In June 2013, Citizen Lab released O Pakistan We Stand on Guard for Thee, a research report that reveals evidence that Internet filtering software developed by Canada-based company Netsweeper is deployed on networks operated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL). PTCL is a formerly government-owned enterprise that currently serves as Pakistan’s largest ISP and the manager of its Internet Exchange Point. Previous research by the OpenNet Initiative indicated that Netsweeper is being used for national-level filtering in India and across countries in the Middle East and Gulf including Qatar, UAE, Yemen, India.

Bytes for All (B4A) has actively campaigned against Pakistan’s national filtering system since the proposal’s inception in 2012. More recently, B4A has raised concerns over the role of Netsweeper’s filtering technology in aiding the Pakistani’s government’s Internet censorship regime. B4A Country Director Shahzad Ahmad argues that censorship in Pakistan has over time shifted toward targeting “secular, progressive, and liberal voices” and that “anything can be banned without debate.” A number of media outlets and non-governmental organizations have spread these concerns, including Reporters Without Borders, Reuters, and Pakistan’s The Express Tribune.

Other organizations such as Bolo Bhi and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have similarly protested against Internet censorship in the country. On July 3, 2013, Bolo Bhi Director Sana Saleem sent a letter to the High Commissioner for Canada in Islamabad urging the Canadian government to stand by its commitment to free expression and to assist the organization in demanding answers from Netsweeper regarding the company’s presence in Pakistan.

The High Commission responded by stating that “Canada expects Canadian companies working overseas to abide by the laws of those countries, and to act in accordance with applicable Canadian laws, ethical standards, and corporate social responsibility best practices.” The letter, signed by High Commissioner Greg Giokas, also stated that it was the responsibility of the Government of Pakistan to manage the use of information technology “in accordance with local law.” In response, Bolo Bhi reiterated its request that the Government of Canada assist them in seeking information on Netsweeper’s sale of filtering technology to the Pakistani government.

Bytes for All Petitions Pakistani Court on Presence of Surveillance Software

On May 13, 2013, Bytes for All (B4A), a Pakistani civil society group and partner in the Cyber Stewards Network, filed a petition with the Lahore High Court on the possible use of the FinFisher product suite in Pakistan. B4A has advocated for the rights of Pakistani netizens to browse the Internet free of censorship and surveillance through numerous court and government actions, including a recent petition submitted in January 2013 in protest of the ongoing censorship of YouTube.

The first hearing took place on May 13, 2013 and resulted in a court decision ordering the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to investigate the use of FinFisher software in the country. The court order further stipulated that the PTA must make a statement to the court by June 24, 2013. Further news on this court case will be posted as updates develop.

B4A’s case is based on evidence revealed by the Citizen Lab on the presence of FinFisher software in 36 countries across the globe, including Pakistan. Developed by Munich-based Gamma International GmbH, FinFisher products are marketed and sold exclusively to law enforcement and intelligence agencies by the UK-based Gamma Group. The company advertises FinFisher as a “governmental IT intrusion” software that can exfiltrate data, intercept email and instant messaging communications, and spy on users through webcams and microphones.

Activists and civil society organizations in other countries have urged government authorities to investigate the use of FinFisher in their respective jurisdictions. Human rights activists in Mexico have filed a request with the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection (IFAI) to investigate FinFisher’s presence two Mexican ISPs. UK-based NGO Privacy International has filed for an application for judicial review regarding the refusal of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to release information about Gamma Group’s export of FinFisher. Privacy International’s case was spurred by revelations that the Bahraini government had used FinFisher software to target domestic activist Ala’a Shehabi.