Bloggers brace for blackouts over CJ
By Cecil J. Chen
KARACHI: Since the suspension of the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, last week and the subsequent discussions about it on internet forums and web logs, or blogs, Pakistani bloggers have been apprehensive about a repetition of last year’s Blogspot embargo enforced by certain government entities. This time around though, bloggers are concerned about more than a ban on Blogspot.
According to reports from Reporters Sans Frontiers, BBC Urdu, Plus Ultra Blog, and local internet users, there are more than 50 websites that have been blocked within the country. “That’s not counting the sites that the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE) filters at their end, combined with the filtering of specific keywords, such as ‘baloch nationalist’, ‘bugti’ or ‘mohammed cartoon’, among others,” said Afaan, senior network engineer of a local ISP. “With all these filters at both the ISP and then the flags, it easily comes to over 30,000 to 40,000 sites which Pakistani users have been restricted from viewing.”
Since the ban on the former popular blog site in this country, which neither the PIE, nor the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), have admitted to, bloggers have moved their musings to other sites. On February 28, Wordpress users noticed that they were unable to log onto their blogs, but that Blogspot was no longer blocked. Approximately one week later, on March 9, Chaudhry was suspended and the news was all over the internet. Political blogs, such as The Glass House have been flooded with opinions, new reports, press releases, conspiracy theories, and other assorted information. During that time, many other websites became suddenly inaccessible. According to several user reports, sites such as CNN and Yahoo were among several that were unavailable. Pakistan was not cut off from the world as such, just from the international digital media.
This sudden instability in access caused many bloggers to become anxious, once again, about the fate of their blogs. According to a leading Pakistani blogger and the spearhead of a local anti-censorship group, several technical tests revealed that the situation was nothing more than a fault at the PIE’s end, or so it seemed.
Some ISPs, while admitting to following PTA directives, say they do not filter keywords from their nodes and instead, leave that up to the PIE to implement. Saeed, a network engineer with a major Lahore-based cable service provider, admitted that the organization he works for does block sites listed by the PTA as containing material related to religious “intolerance” or along sectarian and ethnic lines.
According to most reports of the restricted access list, however, there are over 20 Baloch nationalists’ sites, several Hindu sites, and quite a few online publications by international media. Saeed said, however, that he has never seen or known of a PTA directive, at least to ISPs, to block an entire domain or IP pool. Representatives from several other ISPs repeated the same claims. So why have Pakistani bloggers been unable to access Blogspot for most of the past year, at least not without an anonymous proxy browser. This situation, that has been termed blanket blocking, has frustrated many users domestically, as well as internationally. “I hope the higher authorities will realize that Internet censorship is an exercise in futility and anonymous surfing is now the norm,” said H.A., a Pakistani blogger.
Learner, a Dutch blogger said: “I wish you the best of luck getting your blogs to us in the outside world.” A US graduate student, when asked if she found internet censorship in Pakistan odd, replied in the negative.
The internet is a massive three-dimensional spider-web (hence the popular coinage of ‘The web”), where every intersection is a computer which is connected to every other computer on the internet - regardless of its location. It is actually the underlying layer upon which the web operates. It is made up of multiple independent networks of very arbitrary design, all connected to each other. And its basic concept, from the bottom-up, is to tolerate and sustain redundancy, and, especially, resist damage. Censorship on the internet is nothing more than a form of damage which is easily circumvented. If the data doesn’t make it through to its destination, then another route will be automatically tried, until all possible routes are exhausted. So if one computer, or a whole bunch of them, decides to block certain types of data, then they will be automatically bypassed sequentially until the destination is reached. This is a concept that every above-novice internet user understands and, in the case of Pakistanis, appreciates.
Pakistan has two submarine fibre optic links (a third is in the works) and a few satellite links which connect it to the rest of the world. All of them are controlled by the PIE, which monitors all incoming and outgoing internet traffic from Pakistan. Its primary purpose is to filter content as the government deems fit and its secondary purpose is to track all incoming and outgoing e-mails, which are stored for a certain period of time. There is a list of blacklisted sites and noted keywords which the PIE systems monitor and accordingly block by users on an IP pool originating from Pakistan.
This is where anonymous proxies, or anonymizers, come in. If a site is blocked, then users simply log on to a site that is not blocked to access the blocked site. The computer hosting that unblocked site is called a proxy server, and acts as a middleman between you and the blocked site. This can be done by any of the hundreds of billions of computers on the internet and, therefore, potentially, there are more than a billion ways of bypassing censorship.
Dr Alvi, of the Don’t Block the Blog Movement, said that the recent issue with the sudden blockage and the subsequent open access, at least for today (March 16), is that the PTA could simply be updating its systems and he opined that the ban will be in place again soon.
So for now, Wordpress is accessible, and so is Blogspot, dumbreligion.com, and the Washington Post blogs, but bloggers are withholding any sigh of relief, expecting that, sooner or later, for whatever reason, the government will resume its restrictions.
The following websites are reportedly banned in Pakistan
(BBC Urdu, RSF, local internet users, +Ultra Blog)
The 13 enemies of the Internet
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- Saudi Arabia