Ministry, PTA refuse to disclose details of controversial Internet firewall

Officials plan to deploy controversial "firewall" to "monitor" all incoming and outgoing online traffic

Geo Fact-Check
Saman Amjad
A man looking at a phone is seen through a digitally decorated glass during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, November 23, 2020. — Reuters

  • Govt officials withholding info about controversial "firewall". 
  • Lack of information raises censorship concerns.
  • China rolled out “Golden Shield” in early 2000.

Despite confirmation of its implementation by a parliamentarian and the former caretaker prime minister, government officials are withholding information about a controversial 'firewall' they plan to deploy in the country to ‘monitor’ all incoming and outgoing online traffic.

In an interview with private TV channel on January 26, the then interim prime minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar revealed that state authorities planned to “regulate” social media in Pakistan.

“Very soon a national firewall will be deployed [in the country],” he disclosed.

A similar statement was made by Afnan Ullah Khan, a senator of the ruling-Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), on May 3 in an interview with local broadcaster.

When asked about the official ban on the microblogging platform X, formerly known as Twitter, for the last three months in Pakistan, the senator disagreed with the closure, and then added that according to his information, the government was planning to implement a “firewall to monitor social media platforms”.

Geo Fact Check sent repeated requests for comments to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the telecommunication regulator in the country, as well as the minister of state for information technology and telecommunication, over a period of two weeks.

While the Minister of State Shaza Fatima Khawaja did not respond, a spokesperson for the ministry, Jameel Ahmed, claimed that the implementation of the firewall fell within the "domain of the PTA".

However, the spokesperson for the PTA told Geo Fact Check that it was the "ministry's project" and only they could respond to questions about the firewall.

Lack of information about firewall raises censorship concerns among rights activists

Usama Khilji, a digital rights activist, explained that, according to his information, the “national firewall” the government plans to deploy may have been bought from China.

China rolled out the “Golden Shield”, colloquially known as the Great Firewall, in early 2000, a software which reportedly enables the country to inspect any data being received or sent and to block domain names and destination IP addresses.

“Now the [Pakistan] government too will have a technology through which it can censor and block websites,” said Khilji, “Through this firewall, the government will decide what Pakistani users can and cannot access.”

Ramsha Jahangir, a digital investigative journalist, explained that Pakistan seems to be deploying a widening range of methods to filter and block Internet traffic content such as Internet Protocol-range blocking, Domain Name System (DNS) filtering, and Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).

“These methods interfere with the functioning of the Internet,” she added, “For instance, DPI requires examining all data traffic, including encrypted content, to determine its nature. DNS-blocking is done by funneling traffic to a modified DNS server that blocks certain names.”

Jahangir further said that while details about the national firewall are thin as of now, but by using the above filtering tactics, the government will be able to “surveil Pakistani citizens’ digital activity” almost constantly.

Farieha Aziz, the co-founder of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights and civil liberties group, also fears a “China-like filtering” of online information in Pakistan.

Aziz said that this would also raise concerns about online privacy and the protection of the personal information of online users in Pakistan and will have a grave impact on the fundamental rights of citizens such as the freedom of speech and access to information.

“If content is being blocked then how is it being blocked? Will encrypted data be decrypted? The government refuses to answer questions about this,” she said.