Sana Saleem’s crusade to demolish the Pakistan government’s censorship firewall

Sana Saleem

The government of Pakistan has to be probably the first democracy publicly making its intentions clear about muzzling its cyberspace. Taking a leaf  out of what China has ‘achieved’ with what  is now known as the Great Firewall of China, the Pakistan government, via its Ministry of IT and ICT R&D has called for tenders for the “development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking System, ” on February 22, 2012.

According to the government proposal,

This system would be indigenously developed within Pakistan and deployed at IP backbones in major cities, i.e., Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Any other city/POP could be added in future. The system is proposed to be centrally managed by a small and efficient team stationed at POPs of backbone providers. The system would have a central database of undesirable URLs that would be loaded on the distributed hardware boxes at each POP and updated on daily basis. The database would be regularly updated through subscription to an international reputed company maintaining and updating such databases.

You could download the entire government proposal here.

This would effectively bring under its purview about 5 to 10 million urls, all prime fodder for zapping under the broad ‘ideals’ of public morality, national security and blasphemy, if the government has its way. Sana Saleem, arguably the most powerful and influential Voice of the Web in Pakistan is committed to not letting this happen at any cost and she has the support of the disorganised majority of the nation, most importantly, the whole-hearted support of the definitive ones that power the digital opinion of the web. In the words of  Fatima Mullick, Khudi Pakistan’s National Coordinator,  “in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, where the middle ground is increasingly shrinking, people who can play fair and present both sides of the story are increasingly valuable and respected, and that is what Sana does, who she is. She is fearless.”

Khudi Pakistan is one of the most popular counter-extremist, social movement working to promote a democratic culture in Pakistan. The 25-year old hijab-wearing, dimunitive  activist working on minority rights and internet freedom is also a prolific blogger, with her columns at  Global Voices,  Asian Correspondent, The Guardian, Dawn and her personal blog Mystified Justice. She had recently won the Best Activist Blogger award by CIO & Google at the Pakistan Blogger Awards. Sana Saleem is also one of the leading voices of Pakistan’s moderate, educated classes who refuse to suffer in silence regardless of the state’s alleged efforts to make them cower in the shadows.

Of Pakistan’s two closest neighbors – India and China, the former still enjoys an almost unrestricted usage of the Web regardless of the recent half-baked attempts by the Indian government to bring in strictures to control information. China, is an entity and a model Pakistan looks up to with regard to its infamous Great Firewall but the democracy conveniently seems to forget  the element of autocracy in the most populous nation on the planet. Sana Salem’s Bolo ( which means Speak up !) has aleady set out an online petition that would be submitted to Yusuf Raza Gillani, Prime Minister, Pakistan, IT Ministry, and Syed Aun Abbas, CEO, ICTRDF, which she hopes would be the first wave of public response against what she calls the “active involvement of  the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)  in blocking and filtering content online and has thus far been successful, under the guidance and direction of the Ministry of IT. ”

You can sign the petition here.

Ironically the fund allocated for the project is from the corpus of ICT’s Research and Development, whose vision is to to transform Pakistan’s economy into a knowledge based economy by promoting efficient, sustainable and effective ICT initiatives through synergic development of industrial and academic resources.” It just doesn’t get more bizarre and audacious than this. Sana Saleem’s Bolo Bhi has also written to  eight international organisations that provide the infrastructure  for  Net filtering technology, asking them to make a public commitment not to apply for the Pakistani grant.

One of them, Web sense has already withdrawn from the initiative, stating :

Websense will not submit a response to this request for proposal (RFP), and we call on other technology providers to also do the right thing for the citizens of Pakistan and refuse to submit a proposal for this contract. Broad government censorship of citizen access to the internet is morally wrong. We further believe that any company whose products are currently being used for government-imposed censorship should remove their technology so that it is not used in this way by oppressive governments.

Slowly but surely, Sana Saleem’s tenacity for the free web in Pakistan is gathering steam. To her, “This is a case study,” as she spoke to New York Times recently, “No government has ever done this so publicly.” And also had opponents like her, strong-willed and committed, might we add.

Sana Saleem on Pakistan’s new way to curb freedom of expression online.
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