Rights activists say Pakistan is moving toward Internet censorship

REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Human rights activists are criticizing a move by Pakistani authorities to establish cyber filters that could be used to block millions of websites, calling it a move toward Internet censorship.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology is soliciting proposals from research institutions and software firms for a filtering system capable of blocking as many as 50 million websites deemed by the government to be "undesirable."

In a prepared statement released this week, Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, urged the government to “put on hold the set-up of the filtering system, and ensure that the measure does not end up institutionalizing Internet censorship and surveillance.”

Though Pakistan enjoys a largely unfettered and vibrant media, the government has recently taken several controversial steps to restrict freedom of expression.

In November, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a governmental agency, put out a list of more than 1,000 words and phrases that cellphone companies should block from text messages, including “Jesus Christ,” “tongue,” “fairy,” “murder” and “athlete’s foot.” The agency later backed down after a backlash from telecommunications providers and the Pakistani media.

In 2010, a court in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, ordered the government to block access to Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking website. The ruling was triggered by a campaign on Facebook asking users to post images of the prophet Muhammad on a page called, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!” The court viewed the contest as blasphemous. Pakistan later lifted the Facebook ban after the website issued a formal apology.

Other groups have also criticized Pakistan’s latest attempt at censorship. Reporters Without Borders sent Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani a letter urging him to drop the idea. The group stated that Pakistan could be put on its annual “Enemies of the Internet” list alongside countries such as Belarus, Cuba, Iran and China if it went ahead with the project. Several companies, including Cisco and Verizon, have publicly stated they would not seek the contract because of censorship concerns.

“The decision on what content should be blocked must not be left to the whims of bureaucrats,” Yusuf, the rights commission chairwoman, said in her statement. “An independent judicial body should determine the necessity and justification for blocking a particular website to prevent arbitrary restrictions.”

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-- Alex Rodriguez

 
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