Stop Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation's censoring



The Daily Times (Pakistan)
July 10, 2003

Stop PTCL's censoring

Q Isa Daudpota

It is now up to people like Prof Atta-ur-Rahman and General Musharraf 
who want a tolerant Pakistan to make known their concern about the 
arbitrary censorship of the Net. The General while addressing lawyers 
came out strongly in favour of a pluralistic society. It is, however, 
not good enough to just express an opinion when action is needed

When a new form of evil extrudes into American society, demands for 
Internet regulation seem to arrive faster than a greyhound on crack. 
-Declan McCullagh 1999

In the above, replace 'evil' by 'porn'; for 'America' read 
'Pakistan'. And, dear innocent reader, if you don't know 'crack' 
think of 'heroin'. A greyhound is a bitch - no, I mean a dog!
You get the idea. Our telephone company, the monopoly holder for 
conveying Internet traffic, has lately been working overtime as the 
morality policeman. A few days ago it was asked to double up as 
protector of the government's reputation. Now isn't that exactly what 
a public sector organisation is not supposed to do?

Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation Ltd (PTCL) has banned several 
thousand porn sites, making them inaccessible to the novice user. 
Among all this has sprung up the devil, in the shape of an overseas 
Pakistani editor of a Net newspaper, with his forked spear punching 
holes in the underbelly of the government functionaries, the army and 
its leader. Isn't anything sacred anymore?

In the May issue of a Karachi-based Internet magazine, PTCL's 
Chairman, Akhtar Bajwa, was asked about the criteria for blocking 
websites for porn, blasphemy and others regarded as 'objectionable'. 
He responded, "We have a judgment to follow (what does that mean?). 
Deciding whether online content is porn and how to block it is a very 
difficult job for a commercial organisation... We will not do it of 
our own accord but if it's a government directive we have to comply 
with it. We are doing our best to insure [that] pornography is 
stopped. As a professional, personally I say there should be an 
independent entity doing this and not PTCL."

I lived just down the street from Mr Bajwa in Islamabad and would 
have loved to pass on to him the article "The Names of Shame: 
Defining Indecency and Obscenity at the Ends of Centuries" from where 
I took the introductory quotation. He and others can, thanks to the 
Net, find it at http://tinyurl.com/e1oa .

A recent popular Sunday column in a Pakistani newspaper mourns the 
foolishness of the PTCL controllers. But PTCL's attempt to stop 
access to the critical net paper hardly comes as a surprise. An 
Internet monthly had predicted this possibility at a time when the IT 
Division closely controlled PTCL, during Prof Atta-ur-Rahman's era.
Even though I do not buy newspapers generally, the aforementioned 
column arrived in my electronic mailbox the day it appeared in print. 
What the censors do not realise is that the Net was designed to 
survive a nuclear holocaust! It is not solely dependent on a single 
electronic route from the information source to the recipient. If a 
particular link in the long route breaks down, the bits and byte flow 
automatically via another extant link - there are an awful lot of 
alternatives, thankfully. PTCL clearly forgot to mention this to 
those who ordered this blockage.

We are told that Ministers Awais Ahmad Khan Leghari and Sheikh 
Rashid, in-charge of IT and information respectively, have nothing to 
do with any blocking. Let's assume that this is so. But since 
blocking is a fact and has carried on for quite sometime now, it is 
their responsibility to find out who did this and why and inform the 
public. Thereafter it is for Prime Minister Jamali or perhaps General 
Musharraf to stop it.

It is clear that the censored Net paper is strongly critical of the 
current political arrangement. Some accuse it of yellow journalism. 
Even so, blocking it is foolish and gives the Pakistani leadership a 
bad name. PTCL, which is desperately trying to sell its assets to the 
private sector, could also have done without such bad publicity. 
International commentary in the wake of this ban has made Pakistan 
appear as a place that cannot tolerate dissent.

If this censorship trend isn't halted right away, banning Indian and 
Israeli newspapers may be next. Also secular websites may be 
obstructed the way 'porn' sites are currently blocked. According to a 
reliable source within the government, "PTCL knows that blocking 
sites greatly slows down access - a technical reason for refraining 
from such foolishness but are perhaps afraid to say this as they are 
carrying out a directive. They are now getting a powerful piece of 
software which will not only block porn (whatever that means) but 
will also help in curbing the menace (from the PTCL's perspective) of 
Voice over IP (that's your Net phone connection). And oh, while it is 
at it, this nifty software will also conveniently block things like 
MMA, Isa Daudpota, Shias, etc on the command of the masters of the 
day."

It is now up to people like Prof Atta-ur-Rahman and General Musharraf 
who want a tolerant Pakistan to make known their concern (and that of 
most enlightened Pakistanis) about the arbitrary censorship of the 
Net. The General while addressing a large group of lawyers came out 
strongly in favour of a pluralistic society. It is, however, not good 
enough to just express an opinion when action is needed.

Finally, for civil libertarians reading this, here is something to 
consider. Anonymous 'proxy servers' are a plenty on the net and allow 
users to access blocked sites. One uses such servers to bypass 
censorship. For the eyes/computers of your Internet Service 
Provider/government you are only connecting to the proxy, they can't 
easily see that the proxy is connecting you to a 'bad site'. See 
http://tinyurl.com/e4at for more information about such proxy servers.
Q Isa Daudpota is a physicist who writes on education, environment, 
science and IT. He is on the planning team of the Beaconhouse 
National University, Lahore.


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