Pakistan: block on Blogger has been lifted! Until…?

Written for Global Voices

According to Dr Awab Alvi, co-founder of the Pakistani “Don’t Block The Blog” campaign, the block imposed on blogs hosted on Blogger has been lifted for about a week. The Don’t Block The Blog campaign was launched in response to the blanket ban on the Blogspot.com blogging platform instituted by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) more than a year ago, on 3rd of March 2006.

However Dr Alvi says the lifting of the ban was not a deliberate move on the part of the authorities:

it was quite simply due to an accident that the PTA was forced to lift the filters. A week back a number of filters at the monitoring center started acting up which resulted in quite a large number of websites getting blocked for one reason after another, showing large timeouts etc.

The current incident began on February 28th when, in a bid to filter out certain websites deemed blasphemous by the Supreme Court, the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) blocked access not just to a limited number of sites but also to thousands of major websites and email servers. A press release issued by “Don’t Block The Blog” on the 6th March 2007 gave a sense of the scale of the action:

the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority accidentally blocked millions of websites which suddenly came inaccessible for internet users in Pakistan. The accidentally blocked sites are popular, non­controversial web pages with high traffic, including Google.com, Download.com, Microsoft.com, Gmail.com, Yahoo.com, BBC, CNN, Systematic, Akamai, PC World, MTV, Best Buy, Logitech and ESPN.

Bloggers reacted as well, and were joined in their complaints from an unexpected quarter – blogger Ifaqeer was surprised to see Pakistani newspaper covering the block of thousands of vital websites and email servers:

It seems that the utter stupidity of the blocking of websites in Pakistan has gotten to a point where even the mainstream media (I never thought I would use that phrase for a Pakistani newspaper) has noticed.

Indeed, according to several Pakistani newspapers – like The News which was following the development of the block- the PTA was under heavy pressure from local ISPs and IT-dependent businesses who, according to The News, “suffered 20 to 30 per cent revenue loss” over the five days of the block. Pakistani ISPs were, in their turn, under pressure from subscribers and average non-activist Internet users who went through agonizing five days without connection to popular sites and reacted with overwhelming complaints against local ISPs.

Every single ISP that is connected to the Internet through ITIITI: Information Technology Infrastructure. suffers, and the ISPs get to be blamed for PTCL’s dirty job“, a senior official of Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK), is quoted as saying to The News newspaper.

In an attempt to explain the sudden mass-blocking, one ISP sent a letter to all its subscribers:

The sites, like Microsoft, Yahoo etc, pull their content from different servers distributed across different networks. Few of these networks have been blocked by ITI on the PTA directive … The reason is that these networks are also hosting some information which is objectionable, but instead of blocking that particular web site, PTCL has blocked the whole networks, which is causing serious issues in display of Internet content.

This case has made it clear that firm pressure issued from average Internet users, subscribers, ISPs and IT-enabled industry can have a decisive impact on forcing the government to lift the block. And this is what happened on Sunday 11th of March when the PTCL “decided to revert to the pre-February 28 scenario“, adopting seemingly a “more sophisticated and smarter means to filter out the blasphemous material“, The News wrote.

As The Internet Censorship Explorer (ICE) wrote on March 5, 2007:

Overblocking tends to create a significant backlash, especially from non-activist Internet users. While people can often tolerate the blocking of some sites (often extremist, or offensive etc…) it does not significantly impact the experience of everyday users. But when people’s regular browsing and blogging is interrupted they quickly become aware of censorship’s impact and campaign against it.

Because the unblocking of Blogspot.com was “accidental” and a quick-fix solution, Dr Awab Alvi is expecting that it will be resumed shortly. As he told me by mail:

At present NOTHING IS BLOCKED, but we are being very careful as I can almost assume that in short due course it shall resume once they have figured out the problem. If they don’t YIPPEE great for us, but looking at the local situation here and the surmounting tension in Islamabad as regards to the Chief Justice crisis, I would not be surprised to see some blocking to come again.

Furthermore, especially after the last statement made by PTCL senior executive vice-president (IT) Ameer-ud-Din and published by the Pakistan Times, we can only fear that the unblock was a temporarily measure:

We have not undone what we did to comply with the SCPakistani Supreme Court order. We are still filtering the websites.

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