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CDT to Companies: Don’t Help Pakistan Censor the Internet

Update: McAfee announced on Twitter that it – like Websense, Cisco, Sandvine, and Verizon – is “not pursuing the Pakistan Firewall RFP.”

Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority is calling on technology companies to build out the country’s Internet filtering system. An official request for proposals (RFP) envisions a filtering system that can block an astounding 50 million URLs at a time to address undefined “undesirable” content.

Just this week, Cisco, Sandvine, and Verizon made a public commitment not to bid on the project. CDT joins advocates at the Business & Human Rights Resource Center and Pakistani NGO Bolo Bhi in commending these companies for their choice.

It is difficult to imagine how a company or institution could submit a proposal for this massive internet censorship effort while still upholding its responsibilities to respect Internet users’ human rights, as articulated by the United Nations.

Pakistan has a history of censoring expression that it deems “blasphemous.” Historically, this category has included significant amounts of peaceful political and religious expression deserving of protection, and has led to massive overblocking of wholly inoffensive content. For example, in 2006, the Pakistani government blocked the entire Blogspot domain in an effort to limit access to an offensive cartoon depiction of Mohammad. In 2010, Pakistani courts ordered local ISPs to block Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook in their entirety in response to “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.”  In other circumstances, politically disfavored news sites have been blocked for containing “anti-Pakistan material.”

The questions raised by the Pakistani proposal loom large in the ever-evolving conversation around whether and how businesses can work responsibly in countries whose governments routinely violate international rights to free expression and privacy. CDT believes that companies whose business models involve promoting the flow of information should be able to conduct business in a diverse range of countries, even those that spy on users and censor content. Responsible engagement—in some cases—can can result in net gains for human rights. But what defines “responsible engagement” when businesses set up shop in states where human rights norms are not consistently upheld by government authorities?

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) urges companies to constantly assess human rights risk that flows from their business, actively mitigate that risk, and resist government requests that appear inconsistent with human rights norms.  Companies that don’t may be seen as complicit with government abuses—this can leave them on the wrong side of public opinion, a place that can be bad for business.

Technology companies must tread most carefully in countries where governments may be seeking to violate user rights by soliciting the help of ICT companies or by using ICTs themselves. Sometimes there are lines that companies cannot cross without becoming complicit in human rights violations.

Given Pakistan’s history of censorship, and the breadth of the proposed filtering system, we believe that companies that choose to respond to the RFP will be crossing such a line. Prior to commitments made by Cisco, Sandvine, and Verizon, the online security services company Websense, a GNI member, announced that it would not bid on the project because “broad censorship of the internet by governments, and restricting citizen access,” runs counter to company policy, GNI principles, and is “morally wrong.”

The statement continues: “We further believe that any company whose products are currently being used for government-imposed censorship should remove their technology so that it is not used in this way by oppressive governments.”

We urge other companies to follow Websense’s example. We expect that any company that employs a “know your customer” framework or assesses the human rights impact of Pakistan’s proposed project will reach the same conclusion: the company that wins this contract will be winning a lead role in facilitating government censorship.