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.
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.
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.