According to a request for proposals from the government’s National ICT (Information and Communications and Technologies) R&D Fund, the government is struggling to stay on top of growing Internet and WEb use and is looking for a way to filter out undesirable Web sites.

“Many countries have deployed web filtering and blocking systems at the Internet backbones within their countries. However, Pakistani ISPs and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable web sites using current manual blocking systems,” the proposal reads. (PDF) “A national URL filtering and blocking system is therefore required to be deployed at national (sp) IP backbone of the country.”

The RFP describes Internet access in Pakistan as “mostly unrestricted and unfiltered.” “ISPs and backbone providers have currently deployed manual URL filtering and blocking mechanism (sp) in order to block the specific URLs containing undesirable content as notified by the PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority) from time to time.” The system would be “deployed at IP backbones in major cities, i.e., Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad,” the RFP reads. It would be “centrally managed by a small and efficient team stationed at POPs of backbone providers,” and must be capable of supporting 100Gbps interfaces and filtering Web traffic against a block list of up to 50 million URLs without latency of more than 1 millisecond, according to a copy of the RFP. 

Despite claims to the contrary, the Pakistani government is no stranger to Web filtering or censorship. The Center for Democracy and Technology warned in January 2011 about Pakistani government efforts to suppress “anti-Islamic” statements on Web sites following the assassination of a prominent governor who advocated outlawing the death sentence as a punishment for blasphemy. And, in November, 2011, the government circulated a list of more than 1,000 English phrases, many of them profane, that would be blocked from SMS messages by the nation’s telecommunications carriers. 

The filtering and blocking of Web sites and Internet addresses that are deemed hostile to authorities has become a major political and human rights issue in the last year, as popular protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, dubbed “The Arab Spring” erupted. Notably, the Egyptian government used Web filtering tools to block access to Facebook in the midst of that country’s popular overthrow of the government of Hosni Mubarak in January, 2011. In the wake of the overthrow of that regime, there were revelations about the efforts by western firms, including the UK firm Gamma International to sell a German Trojan horse program known as FinFisher to the Egyptian government. The Israeli firm Allot Communications found itself in hot water after allegations that it violated Israeli export control laws and sent its monitoring hardware, NetEnforcer, to Iran. Finally, the u.S. Web filtering firm Blue Coat Systems of Sunnyvale admitted in October that 13 of its Web filtering devices ended up in Syria after they were shipped to a distributor in Dubai last year, ostensibly for use by a department of the Iraqi government.
It is unclear whether the Pakistani project to build a domestic alternative to products such as Blue Coat and NetApp is  merely a good-faith effort to promote domestic innovation (the ICT R&D fund’s stated purpose), evidence of mistrust of Western firms or recognition of the fact that Western firms might be reluctant to do business with a regime that has a record of censorship and persecution of political dissidents.
In the wake of revelations of sales of surveillance technologies to Syria, three U.S. senators pushed the State Deparment (PDF) to investigate the sales of surveillance technology by NetApp and Blue Coat to Syria and to threaten the cancellation of U.S. government purchases of technology from those firms if they were found to violate U.S. export laws.

Categories: Critical Infrastructure, Government, Web Security