A newly released report charges that a Canadian company's technology is playing a central role in facilitating Internet censorship in Pakistan.
According to a report released Thursday by the Citizen Lab, a digital media and human rights research centre at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, the Canadian content filtering company Netsweeper is working with Pakistan Telecommunications Company Ltd. (PTCL), the largest telecom firm in the country. PTCL is majority-owned by the government of Pakistan.
"Netsweeper technology is being implemented in Pakistan on PTCL for purposes of political and social filtering, including websites of secessionist movements, sensitive religious topics, and independent media," the report said.
The filtering includes blocking sites related to Balochi and Sindhi national self-determination activists, as well as Pashtun secessionism, it added. In addition, the report stated, major websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have also been blocked when such content shows up on the sites.
The report, titled O Pakistan, We Stand On Guard For Thee, was produced in partnership with Bytes For All, a Pakistani human-rights organization.
In many parts of the world, content filtering software is used by Internet service providers to block a variety of websites, whose content can include pornographic, politically sensitive or otherwise controversial content. The Citizen Lab's previous research efforts have highlighted several cases in which Western filtering companies have provided technology to regimes with troubling human rights records.
Netsweeper, which is based in Guelph, Ont., did not respond to calls and e-mails for comment.
The list of blocked sites collected by the researchers includes a number of services that allow users to surf the web anonymously. Websites critical of Islam also featured heavily on the list of blocked sites, as did pornographic sites. A U.S. Air Force academy site was also blocked, as was the Wikipedia entry for Gabriel, the angel of the Abrahamic religions.
Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, said that, in previous years, it was much easier to determine which companies were aiding in censorship efforts around the world. This is in part because the "access denied" pages that would pop up when a user tried to visit prohibited sites would usually contain the name or logo of the company providing the censorship software. However in recent years, as pressure mounted on such companies to stop working with repressive regimes, many of the same pages now offer no identifying informationabout the companies providing the censorship technology.
In some cases, the ISPs doing the blocking have sought to disguise the practice by redirecting users to pages that appear to show the website is simply unavailable, rather than deliberately blocked. For example, a user might be directed to a "404" error page, indicating the site was not found.
"You see a 404 page, but it isn't a 404," said Mr. Deibert. "It looks like an error or a broken connection."
The full Citizen Lab report is available at: https://citizenlab.org/2013/06/o-pakistan/