Pakistan’s Plans To Block 50 Million Blacklisted URLs

[To my Pakistani friends, I can only say that I hope you have enjoyed No Sunglasses while it lasted.]

Pakistan’s excessive Internet censorship plans

A Pakistani man removes movie posters on a cinema wall in Rawalpindi. (AFP/Abid Zia)
A Pakistani man removes movie posters on a cinema wall in Rawalpindi. (AFP/Abid Zia)

Last month, Pakistan’s government put out requests for proposals for a massive, centralized, Internet censorship system. Explaining that “ISPs and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable web sites using current manual blocking systems,” the state-run National Information Communications Technology Research and Development Fund said it therefore requires “a national URL filtering and blocking system.”

The new system would need to handle “up to 50 million [blacklisted] URLs,” and would operate across the entire Pakistani Internet. The research fund intends the system to be designed and built within the country, “by companies, vendors, academia and/or research organizations with proven track record.”

Fifty million URLs is quite a tall order — but not, sadly, for the demands of an Internet censorware device. Censorship, managed by routers and software built by a number of companies, scales rather easily to such demands. Companies like McAfee sell blocking systems for corporate intranets with databases in excess of 25 million web addresses. Such databases have been re-purposed for national firewalls in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for many years.

It is democratic oversight which fails to scale to such numbers. Databases of millions of sites inevitably include “false positives” — sites that should never have been included, even on the terms of the blacklist. That’s why corporate blocks have been shown to include feminist and gay rights sites under “pornography,” as well as high-profile blogging and micro-blogging sites like Twitter and LiveJournal as “dating” websites. When these databases are applied to national firewalls, such sites disappear from general access.

Worse, it’s impossible for citizens to oversee such blocking systems to prevent over-censorship, including of news sites, by those in power. Pakistan’s current censorship policy is unclear, but already sites such as the Baloch Hal and others carrying news about Baluchistan — a contested region of Pakistan with a number of secessionist groups — are blocked. Any future blacklist will undoubtedly be kept secret. And the centralized nature of the database means that the government will be able to censor sites swiftly, with no checks and balances. In the RFP’s technical description, there’s no room for any civic oversight.

Even the small steps taken by some Pakistani ISPs to automate Internet censorship has led to over-blocking. Last year, a blocking system introduced by one telecommunications company, Mobitel, meant that Pakistani Internet users could not even search for the name of Asif Al Zardari, their own president.

An unchecked, centrally-controlled, censorship regime with such vast capacity is a recipe for disaster for local online press freedom. Companies, vendors, and academics thinking of applying for the role would be complicit in building a system that could easily — and judging on past behavior, would inevitably — be misused by the Pakistan government.

San Francisco-based CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O’Brien has worked globally as a journalist and activist covering technology and digital rights. Follow him on Twitter @danny_at_cpj.
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