Pakistan Plans to Step Up Censorship Before Elections

By: Qichen Zhang on 28 February 2012

Pakistan has recently come out with a National URL Filtering and Blocking System that would allow it to block 50 million websites, according to PCWorld. Pakistan's National ICT R&D Fund, a division of the Ministry of Information Technology, ran ads in local Pakistani papers last week that detailed the system, saying that it "should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs with a processing delay of not more than 1 millisecond.” The proposal also stressed that the system should be capable of filtering and blocking URLs from the domain level to sub-folder, file levels, and also specific file types, as well as to be able to block a single IP or a range of IPs.

Critics of the proposed plans think that the country is stepping up its filtering measures before the 2013 elections. Shahzad Ahmad, country coordinator for Bytes for All, a human rights agency that works on Internet freedom, said that the elections may coincide with an increase the number of URLs blocked in the country. The Pakistan Observer noted that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has already blocked 13,000 websites considered guilty of publishing adult and blasphemous content. And the Bytes for All blog warned that censorship in the country is likely to get worse before next year's elections:

The Government of Pakistan has repeatedly exhibited the obsession to lock up the Pakistani cyberspace at every given chance. ... This move by the government proves our grave concerns regarding Internet Freedom & online privacy issues in Pakistan. Bytes for All is already very concerned about the fact that there will be major crackdown on the Internet towards general elections in 2013 by introducing more and more surveillance mechanisms and monitoring of citizens digital communications. These recent developments are probably the start of things and we wonder what to expect in the near future.

Alongside last November's text message filtering system, put in place to block 1,700 objectionable words sent over the country's SMS system, this increased system of online censorship would place even further restrictions on digital communication in Pakistan.