Fighting online censorship when legal action fails
Grassroots activists in Pakistan have set an example for digital rights activism.
San Francisco, CA – When, in late February, Pakistan’s Telecommunications Authority (PTA) issued a call for proposals on a large scale internet filtering system to allow for the blocking of up to 50 million URLs (with, it should be noted, a processing delay of “not more than 1 milliseconds [sic]”), Pakistani rights activists were more than a little peeved. While censorship (either online or offline) in the Islamic Republic is no new thing, the new move – presumably designed to entice Western companies to the country – would potentially put Pakistan on par with countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia in terms of sites blocked.
Of course, Pakistan is not China, Iran or Saudi Arabia. It is, at least in theory, a democracy, with freely held elections. And yet, when it comes to the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression, citizens find themselves increasingly with no say in the matter.
Therefore, when faced with the PTA’s latest plans, grassroots organisations knew exactly what they had to do. Rather than appeal to their representatives, they took to the internet, calling on technology companies not to respond to the call for proposals.
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Their efforts were echoed and supported by a number of international organisations, including the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Article 19, the Global Network Initiative, Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (where I work), and made it to the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others. As a result, a number of technology companies, including Cisco and McAfee SmartFilter (both of which, it should be noted, sell their censorship wares to other countries), made statements refusing to sell to the PTA.
Advocacy group Bolo Bhi has been vocal in their opposition of the filter. In one blog post, they explain how the system would affect citizens, noting: “Such a system will give the government extra muscle to go after ‘activists’ – ‘liberals’ – ‘troublemakers’ – You and I. Anyone who is a hindrance, becomes a target.”
Indeed, such a system would likely have the same capabilities as Bahrain’s, which allowed authorities to intercept emails and SMS, which were then read aloud to detainees, or Syria’s, notoriously used to spy on activists. Surveillance of that degree is dangerous and has no place in any of these countries, let alone one that purports to be democratic.
All of this pressure led the PTA to backtracking; on March 19, an article in the International Herald Tribune-affiliated Express Tribune declared the filtering plans shelved. As Islamabad-based digital rights group Bytes for All quickly noted, however, the news item was not followed up by a press release from the government, leading them to believe that the piece was “a strategic move to put an end to the raging protests”.
Like Bytes for All, Bolo Bhi doesn’t see the fight as being over. In a recent letter addressed to the Ministry of Information Technology, the ICT Research and Development Fund, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and signed by eight additional organisations, the group wrote:
While it has become common knowledge that surveillance and censorship technologies are often used in Pakistan, the extent to which this is taking place has only recently become apparent with public reports on censorship and surveillance technologies by a large number of international companies. We also understand the Pakistan government may attempt to involve an academic institution in developing the system, making the biggest victim of this technology also a contributor.
A model for digital rights activism
Born from the bottom up and supported by (not, crucially, initiated by) international organisations, the efforts of local groups serve as a model for digital rights activism. Their actions were strategic, targeting the appropriate stakeholders, their collaboration with international groups built on consensus.
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Another element of these groups’ success is in bypassing the “us vs. them” mentality, a strategy discussed in the 2010 anthology Digital Activism Decoded. In the book, chapter authors Sem DeVillart and Brian Waniewski wrote, “It is tempting for organisations to adopt competitive strategies toward peers engaged in like or complementary efforts,” recommending that groups engaged in online advocacy avoid the competitive structure of corporations.
Furthermore, Bytes for All and Bolo Bhi were well-placed to understand the limitations of legal efforts and instead, chose the best possible path for advocacy: targeting the very businesses their government sought to attract.
As a result, the IT Ministry has verbally committed to issuing a statement against the filtering system, says Bolo Bhi CEO Sana Saleem, who adds that they had been reluctant to meet with civil society groups directly in the past.
“I strongly feel that the campaign success is because of consistent pressure from organisations globally,” wrote Saleem in a recent e-mail, “Even though we have still only received verbal commitment, I believe that the success lies in how we planned the campaign to focus on issues such as businesses, trade, academia and economy steering the debate from the more controversial issues of blasphemy.”
As sure as the PTA will continue their attempts to censor, the efforts of groups like Bytes for All and Bolo Bhi show no signs of abating. And with the support of international groups – which help by raising their voices to a fever pitch – they may just win.
Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork