Groups pressure Pakistan to stop national Internet monitoring plan

Local and international civil rights organizations have jointly written to the government

Top civil rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders asked the Pakistan government on Monday to officially withdraw the country's plans for a national URL filtering and blocking system.

An official of the country's IT ministry told a legislator last month that the plan for the system had been shelved, but there is still no official statement from the government, said Sana Saleem, CEO of local civil rights group Bolo Bhi, which has also signed the statement.

Pakistan floated in February a request for proposal (RFP) for the system to filter and block websites. The RFP was put out by the National ICT R&D Fund of the country's ministry of information technology.

Five international companies known to sell surveillance, filtering and blocking systems committed not to apply for the project at the request of Bolo Bhi and other civil rights groups, Saleem said.

Websense, for example,said it would not submit a response to the RFP, as it does not sell to governments or ISPs that are engaged in government-imposed censorship.

The activists thought they were close to victory when Bushra Gohar, a member of Pakistan's national assembly reported to Bolo Bhi in March that she had been told by Pakistan's IT secretary Farooq Awan, that the plan for the national URL filtering and blocking system had been shelved, and the ministry did not in fact know who had initiated it.

But the government has still to announce officially that the deal is off and cancel the RFP.

"There is clear division in the government," with the security agencies backing a system that will help monitor the Internet, Saleem said. Neither the Ministry nor the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the country's telecoms regulator, are keen on the system after all the criticism, she added.

A spokesman for PTA said last month his agency was not directly involved in the decision to set up the filtering system.

Bolo Bhi is concerned that the government may have only temporarily shelved the project, but may attempt to revive the project purportedly to counter pornography and blasphemy on the Internet, Saleem said.

Officials at the Ministry of IT were not immediately available for comment.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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