Pakistan, which has long censored the Internet, has decided to upgrade its cybersieves. And, like all good bureaucracies, the government has put the initiative out for bid. According to the New York Times, Pakistan wants to spend $10 million on a system that can block up to 50 million URLs concurrently, with minimal effect on network speed. (That’s a lot of Web pages.) Internet censorship is on the march worldwide (and the U.S. is no exception). There are at least three interesting things about Pakistan’s move:
First, the country’s openness about its censorial goals is admirable. Pakistan is informing its citizens, along with the rest of us, that it wants to bowdlerize the Net. And, it is attempting to do so in a way that is more uniform than under its current system, where filtering varies by ISP. I don’t necessarily agree with Pakistan’s choice, but I do like that the country is straightforward with its citizens, who have begun to respond.
Second, the California-based filtering company Websense announced that it will not bid on the contract. That’s fascinating – a tech firm has decided that the public relations damage from helping Pakistan censor the Net is greater than the $10M in revenue it could gain. (Websense argues, of course, that its decision is a principled one. If you believe that, you are probably a member of the Ryan Braun Clean Competition fan club.)
Finally, the state is somewhat vague about what it will censor: it points to pornography, blasphemy, and material that affects national security. The last part is particularly worrisome: the national security trump card is a potent force after 9/11 and its concomitant fallout in Pakistan’s neighborhood, and censorship based on it tends to be secret. There is also real risk that national security interests = interests of the current government. America has an unpleasant history of censoring political dissent based on security worries, and Pakistan is no different.
I’ll be fascinated to see which companies take up Pakistan’s offer to propose…
Cross-posted at Info/Law.