Internet Censorship in Pakistan: Findings from 2014-2017
Haroon Baloch (Bytes for All Pakistan), Maria Xynou (OONI), Arturo Filastò (OONI)
Islamabad: Political dissent in Pakistan under threat, government
censors online content - PC: Haroon Baloch
A research study by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)
and Bytes for All Pakistan.
Table of contents
Probed ISPs: AS132165, AS135661, AS17911, AS23674, AS24499, AS36351,
AS38264, AS38547, AS38710, AS45595, AS45669, AS45773, AS45814, AS53889,
AS55714, AS56167, AS58895, AS59257, AS9260, AS9387, AS9541, AS9557 (22
OONI tests: Web Connectivity,
HTTP Invalid Request Line,
HTTP Header Field Manipulation,
Facebook Messenger test,
Testing period: 5th October 2014 to 22nd September 2017 (3 years)
Censorship methods: DNS tampering and HTTP transparent proxies
We confirm detection of 210 blocked URLs in Pakistan. Explicit
blockpages were observed for many of these URLs, while others were
blocked by means of DNS tampering.
Many of the blocked URLs are considered blasphemous under Pakistan’s Penal Code
for hosting content related to the controversial “Draw Mohammed Day”
campaign. Geopolitical power dynamics appear to be reinforced through
of sites run by ethnic minority groups.
Pakistani ISPs appear to be applying “smart filters”, selectively
blocking access to specific web pages hosted on the unencrypted HTTP
version of sites, rather than blocking access to entire domains.
Overall, we only found ISPs to be blocking the HTTP version of sites,
potentially enabling censorship circumvention over HTTPS (for sites that
support encrypted HTTPS connections).
On a positive note, popular communications apps, including
and Facebook Messenger,
were accessible during the testing period. We find that the Tor network, which enables its users to
browse the web anonymously, was mostly
This study is part of an ongoing effort to examine internet censorship
in Pakistan and in more than 200 other countries around the
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Bytes for All Pakistan collaborated on a joint
research study to examine internet censorship in Pakistan through the
collection and analysis of network measurements. The aim of our study is
to document an aspect of internet governance in Pakistan through the
analysis of empirical data.
The following sections of this report provide more detailed information
about Pakistan’s network landscape and internet penetration levels, its
legal environment with respect to freedom of expression, access to
information and privacy, as well as cases of censorship and surveillance
that have previously been reported in the country. The remainder of the
report documents the methodology and key findings of this study.
DISCLAIMER: This is a research report based on facts collected from
network measurements. This
report is not reflective of either partner’s personal or official
Pakistan is a country in transition, and has been experiencing
political, economic and security instability for more than a decade.
Since 9/11, the country has become a flashpoint because of the ongoing
US war on terror in the region. Pakistan has been an active non-NATO
member and an important ally of the global alliance fighting the war on
terror since 9/11. Due to its alliance against terror groups including
Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the country
has faced massive internal and external security challenges and economic
destabilization. Around 123 USD billion in financial losses
were reported by the government of Pakistan in its Economic Survey for
2016-17, and 80,000 Pakistanis
have lost their lives to the cause.
On political front, Pakistan witnessed a major shift in governance
structure in 2010. Pakistan Peoples Party’s, a center-left party,
succeeded in the 2008 general elections, and immediately after assuming
the power, it vowed revival and restoration of the defunct 1973
constitution in its original shape through a parliamentary process. As a
result, a parliamentary committee on constitutional reforms was
constituted who completed its deliberations with all political parties
and proposed major administrative and governance related amendments in
the defunct constitution. These included restoration of fundamental
rights, renouncement of executive powers from the president to the
elected parliament, granting provincial autonomy, devolution of
departments to the provinces, and allocating 33 percent of seats for
women, and 14 seats for non-Muslims in the lower and upper houses of the
parliaments. These amendments to the constitution were unanimously
approved in April 2010 when the parliament passed the 18^th^ Amendment
and the country got rid of anomalies introduced by military dictators
between 1979 and 2007. In 2013, another constitutional landmark was
achieved in the form of first ever successful completion of five-year
tenure of any democratically elected civilian government, and smooth transfer of administrative powers
to next civilian government.
While Pakistan has seen several political successes in recent years, it
still has a strong influence from a powerful military establishment on
the country’s law making under the national security narrative. In 2013,
the government enacted the Investigation for Fair Trial Act (IFTA),
granting overbroad and disproportionate surveillance powers to
intelligence agencies. Similarly, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes
Act (PECA), 2016 adopts a set of ‘unreasonable’ restrictions in Section
37 that allow the administration to block, remove/filter and censor
online content in the pretext national security, integrity of Islam,
morality, relations with friendly nations, contempt of court, etc.
Several provisions in the law also provide heightened punishments, which
will have chilling effects on online expression. For example, the
provisions related to ‘dignity of a natural person’ (defamation or
libel) have also been included to crack down on political dissenters.
As per the latest provisional census results, Pakistan is a country of
207.77 million people with 106.4 million males and 101.3 million
females. Of these, 36.3% population is housed in urban areas, while
remaining 66.63% lived in rural areas. Pakistan Bureau of Statistics
(PBS) has yet to make the final counts public with more demographics
details and characteristics of population such as religions,
ethnicities, etc. However, according to previous estimates of PBS, Islam
is the largest religion of the country. Around 96% of the population
comprises on Muslims, 1.6% Hindus, 1.59% Christians, 0.22% Ahmadi, 0.25%
Scheduled Castes and 0.07% other religious minorities.
Demographically, Pakistan is a diverse country with Punjabi, Sindhi,
Siraiki, Mohajir (migrants from India), Pashtun, Baluchi, Baruhi,
Burushaski, Chitrali and Shina being the major ethnic groups.
Network landscape and internet penetration
In spite of that South Asia is the second least connected region in the
world, social media managing companies Hootsuite and We Are Social
in January 2017 that Pakistan in the South Asia is one of the fastest
growing markets for the internet. According to their
internet penetration in Pakistan grew by 20% in 2016, with particularly
notable growth of social media at 35%. Most web traffic in Pakistan,
like other emerging markets, is generated through mobile phones with its
annual increase of 13%. There were at least 140.2 million mobile
connections, accounting for 72% of population. Of these, 29% of the
connections were mobile broadband (3G/4G).
Source: Pakistan Telecommunication Authority - 2017
The total number of internet users in Pakistan in January 2016 was 35.1
million people. According to the report, the 31 million active social
media users were most concentrated on Facebook. However, the report also
indicated a huge gender divide for social networking; only 22% of
females were accessing Facebook in comparison to 78% of males.
The latest figures by the state-owned telecom regulator, Pakistan
Telecommunication Authority (PTA) claims that internet penetration at
the end of July 2017 has reached to 45.5 million users, which accounts to
21.8% in a 207.77 million population. By technology, 94.4% people were
mobile broadband subscribers, remaining were connected through DSL, HFC,
WiMax, FTTH, EvDO and other technologies. These stats suggest that since
the launch of 3G and 4G mobile broadband, these technologies are
becoming irrelevant with every passing day. In 2013-14, total number of
broadband subscribers were around 3.8 million and most of them relied on
EvDO, DSL or WiMax technologies. However, 3G/4G mobile broadband
technology was launched in mid-2014, which changed the internet
landscape of the country in terms of access expansion. The annual
Wireless Local Loop (WLL) subscribers by the end of December 2016 were
375,653, while the Fixed Line Local Loop (FLL) density was 1.46%. By the
end of 2016, the annual Fixed Local Line subscribers were 2,692,225.
According to PTA figures, annual Cellular Mobile Teledensity in year
2016-17 was 70.85%, whereas accumulated annual Teledensity (Fixed,
Wireless Local Loop and Mobile) was 72.41%.
Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) acts as a Pakistan’s
internet gateway and bridges the national internet traffic with
international traffic through undersea cables, satellite links and
terrestrial cables. Pakistan is linked with Middle East, Western Europe
and Southeast Asia through SEA-ME-WE-III submarine fiber optic cable
system. According to PTA, Pakistan also established SEA-ME-WE-IV for
international link improving through IMEWE and SEA-ME-WE-V. Transworld
Associates Limited also established first ever private sector undersea
fiber optic cable system, TW-1 connecting Pakistan with Oman and UAE.
Another undersea fiber optic cable system is currently in the process of
completion, called Asia-Africa-Europe (AAE-1). PTCL is also
collaborating with a consortium of international telecommunication
operators to execute this project.
Additionally, Pakistan is also constructing a terrestrial fiber optic
cable network in partnership with China, called the Pakistan-China
Optical Fiber Cable (PCOFC) project. This work is being built under
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative and the unstated
objective of this cable is to route a significant portion of internet
traffic from Pakistan through China, which will put it under the
authority of the Rawalpindi Special Communications Organization (SCO).
SCO is another government owned telecom operator, which is maintained by
Pakistan military with the limited mandate of providing communication
services in the disputed Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan
(GB) regions. During the course of time, SCO has expanded its servicesfrom only
landline telephony to Wireless Local Loop (WLL), cellular mobile (GSM),
broadband internet (DSL) digital cross connect (DXX), long distance and
international (LDI) and domestic private leased networks (DPLN).
However, due to its monopoly over business in the region and opposition
competition in the sector, private telecom operators were not allowed to
operate in these region until 2005 earthquake. Considering people’s plea
that telecommunication services expedite rescue efforts during
calamities, the government allowed private operators to provide mobile
phone services in the regions. Recently, SCO had also made a request to
the government to allow expanding its networks to all regions of the
country, which was turned down by a parliamentary body.
Per the declared plan,
the PCOFC has begun construction at the Khunjarab Pass on the
Pakistan-China border and will provide broadband connectivity to
Gilgit-Baltistan region. Through this line, Pakistan will connect to
Transit Europe-Asia Terrestrial Cable Network and will provide both
countries with additional routes for their international internet
Pakistan has improved in-country fiber optic network connecting almost
all cities and several rural areas in recent years, however, still a
large population living in the far-flung areas is disconnected. The
total length of fiber optic cable network, which is laid with the help
of private operators in Pakistan is 22,300 Km. PTCL owns
only 5,500 Km while remaining is installed by Wateen, Multinet and Link
Direct, all private telecommunication companies.
Pakistan offers a conducive, yet a competitive environment to private
telecom investors to operate in the sector, yet the revenue generation
from telcos is not as encouraging as it should be. According to State
Bank of Pakistan’s figures, share of net foreign direct investment in
telecom sector in 2015-16 was 13% with USD 456,371 million revenues. The
overall investment in telecom sector in same fiscal year remained
$719.7 million, of which 91.6% was in cellular sector. However, in
recent years the government opted the policy to further liberalize
telecom sector, and announced auctioning of Next Generation Mobile
Services (NGMS) broadband spectrum licenses in 2013.
In the region, Pakistan is among those countries who launched mobile
broadband services quite late. It opened up the bidding process for
selling out five broadband spectrums in April 2014 under all three
internationally harmonized bands (2100 MHz, 1800 MHz and 850 MHz). Only
the new entrants in Pakistan telecom market were eligible to place a bid
under 850 MHz. The auction results were announced on April 23, 2014. Two
blocks of 2x5 MHz and two blocks of 2x10 MHz were sold under 2100 MHz
band. One of the foreign companies also secured more advanced block of
2x10 MHz under 1800 MHz band. Another block of 2x10 MHz was sold in
April 2016 under 850 MHz band. The government generated around USD 1.5
billion from these auctions. Recently, the government has also announced
to hold auctioning of 3G/4G spectrums in AJK and GB regions.
Despite the fact, Pakistan has made some progress after launch of 3G/4G
services available to its citizens, however, provision of quality
services to citizens is still a huge hurdle in improving access to fast
internet. OpenSignal, a private company specializes in wireless coverage
mapping through crowdsources data on carrier signal quality from users,
suggests in its annual report launched
in June 2017 that Pakistan stood among the bottom five countries
regarding 4G availability with score of 53.9%. The reason of this is
because all mobile operators providing LTE and 4G services are only
concentrating in urban area where their economic interests are maximum.
(See Coverage Map). In terms of speed, Pakistan is again among bottom 10
countries, however, much better than India, Iran and Sri Lanka in the
region. Average 4G speed in Pakistan is 11.71 Mbps in comparison to 5.14
Mbps and 10.24 Mbps in neighboring countries India and Iran
Map 1: 4G coverage map of Pakistan (Source: OpenSignal)
Map 2: 2G/3G/4G coverage map of Pakistan (Source: OpenSignal)
As far as the landscape of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) is
concerned, more or less 50 ISPs
have been operating in Pakistan. PTCL is one of the three state-owned
telecom companies, which is the largest and operating in all 14 regions
of the country covering over 2000 urban and rural towns. The other
state-owned companies are National Telecommunication Limited (NTC) and
SCO. PTCL provides services in broadband, DSL, EvDO, and 3G wireless
broadband. Wateen is the second largest ISP of the country which is
privately owned and provides DSL and WiMAX wireless broadband services
in almost all urban areas across Pakistan. Other leading ISPs include
WorldCall Telecom, Wi-Tribe, Qubee, COMSATS Internet Services, Telecard,
LinkDotNet, Sharp, NayaTel, DV Com Data, Cyber Internet Services, Super
Dialogue, MyTel, MetroTel, Sharp Communications.
At least 17 Long Distance and International (LDI) telephony operators
have been operating in the country; three of them are state-owned,
whereas FLL operators are 26.
Freedom of expression
The situation regarding freedom of expression, both within offline and
online spaces, is becoming increasingly life threatening in Pakistan.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed under
Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which
is subject to a set of limitations. These include “restrictions imposed
by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security
or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with
foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to
contempt of court, commission of, or incitement to an offense”. A
set of subjective and vague terminology in this Article makes it
arbitrary and open to interpretation. Also the limitations such as
“…glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan,
friendly relations with foreign states, decency or morality or in
relation to contempt of court” are restrictions that do not meet the
criteria provided in the ICCPR.
Regarding online expression, PECA 2016 chalks
out comprehensive guidelines for the state to criminalise political and
religious dissent. Section 10 focuses on cyber-terrorism, Section 20
pertains to offences against the dignity of a natural person and Section
37 looks into ‘unlawful’ online content. These guidelines sanction
unnecessary powers to administrative authorities to stamp down online
content and initiate legal action against the accused.
These provisions under PECA suggest heightened punishments of up to 14
years imprisonment and fines up to 50 million rupees or both. Moreover,
stifling online expression through criminal courts proceedings in
defamation cases is a harsh response. Article 20 of PECA in offences of
defamation in online spaces suggests up to three years imprisonment or
up to 10 million rupees fine, or both.
PECA contains several terms that are vague and can be misinterpreted and
used unlawfully against anyone It does not contain any procedural
safeguards (prior to censorship as well as in appeal) against
surveillance activities carried out by intelligence agencies, nor does
it contain the grounds on which an authority has to consider making use
of its powers.
The government also uses the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 to criminalise online
speech. There are documented cases where the state tried the accused
under section 11-W of the Anti-Terrorism Act for sharing ‘objectionable’
material on Facebook. Anti-terrorism courts meted out a thirteen year
to Rizwan Haider and Saqlain Haider, both belonging to Shia sect, for
sharing ‘objectionable’ posts.
Since the start of 2017, Pakistan has been witnessing a planned
crackdown against social media activists, political workers and
bloggers. The high handedness on human rights movement has manifested a
rampant culture of impunity. Abduction of four bloggers namely Waqas Goraya, Asim
Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Salman Haider are a few examples of this.
After their release, these bloggers adversely suffered an online smear
campaign that associated them with controversial and religiously
sensitive content on social media pages.
Cases of forced disappearances are not reported, and those missing have
not returned. Pakistan’s record in providing safety to activists,
journalists, and civil society members who have been critical of the
policies and growing religious radicalization is far from encouraging. A
large number of such individuals have been routinely censored,
intimidated, been under constant surveillance and attacked in the past.
This has inevitably contributed to the narrowing of spaces for peaceful
expression, debate, protest, and the exercise of civil liberties.
More recently, the government ordered the Federal Investigation Agency
(FIA) to take action against social media activists who were criticising
military. Subsequently, FIA prepared a list of 200 social media users,
summoned them, and confiscated their devices for forensic analyses. This
crackdown corroborates the fears that the PECA 2016 is being used to silence political dissent.
Press freedom is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution, which
is subject to a set of limitation which do not correspond to the
guidelines provided under ICCPR. (See section Freedom of Expression).
Print and electronic media in Pakistan are being regularized by
state-owned regulators Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) and Pakistan
Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) established under PCP
Ordinance 2002 and PEMRA Ordinance 2002. In August 2015, PEMRA
formulated a media code of conduct, which is enforced on privately owned
electronic media across the country. However, most observers noted that
media professionalism and ethics would be more robust if it originated
from self-regulatory codes by an independent
In reality, media regulators such as PEMRA and PCP are functioning as
non-autonomous subordinates of the Ministry of Information and
Broadcasting. The government has not ensured that the mandates of media
regulators remain autonomous.
In PECA 2016, sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 have been introduced, which
are potential threat to investigative form of journalism as they not
only restrict access to critical but public interest information or
intelligence in digital forms, but also criminalize such form of access.
However, the government has recently passed the Public Interest Disclosure Bill (whistleblowers
protection law) in the National Assembly, which will become law after
its passage from the Senate.
Access to information
As a result of 18th amendment, Article 19-A was included in the
Constitution guaranteeing the right to information in all matters of
public importance subject to regulations and ‘reasonable restrictions’
imposed by the law. However, guidelines for these ‘reasonable
restrictions’ are missing in the Constitution leaving space for
legislative bodies to introduce interpretations and limitations of their
own choice to restrict this right.
Since the passage of 18th amendment, the federal government has not made
progress on finalizing legislation on the Right to Information Act
(RTI). Observers note this Act, if passed, is possibly the best tool to
ensure better accountability in government institutions. However,
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab governments have already enacted two
impressive laws in their respective provinces. Like the federal
government, Baluchistan province has yet to replace its outdated RTI laws with the new ones. Sindh
assembly has also passed a new bill called Sindh Transparency and Right
to Information Bill 2016, which is still pending for approval from the governor of the
Privacy and digital surveillance
Under global human rights law, any interference with the right to
privacy can only be justified if it is in accordance with the law, has a
legitimate objective and is conducted in a manner that is necessary and proportionate. Rapid
advances in technology have posed significant challenges to the right to
privacy, yet governments are required to protect and promote this right
in the digital age.
Article 14, Clause 1 of the Constitution of Pakistan provides for the
inviolability of the privacy of the home, subject to law. However, the
Constitution does not expressly protect privacy of communications,
digital or otherwise. Moreover, Article 14 does not provide any
limitations for laws that restrict the right to privacy to ensure that
they are not arbitrary and comply with the principles of necessity and
PECA 2016 also legitimizes the state’s activities to snoop into digital
communications of the citizens, retain personal data for up to one-year
and share it with foreign governments and agencies. PECA 2016 poses a
serious threat to the right to privacy as it permits the PTA and the
designated investigation agency to access traffic data of
telecommunication subscribers and confiscate data and devices without
prior warrants from the court under Section 31. Moreover, Section 35
permits decryption of information, making it impossible for persons to
Phone calls are routinely tapped, which was admitted by the state
intelligence agencies before the Supreme Court in 2015, when they stated
that they were monitoring over 7,000 phone lines
every month. In addition, the government has implemented a mass digital surveillance programme under the guise of
securing Islamabad. Over 1,800 high-powered cameras have been installed
all over Islamabad. These high-definition cameras are technologically
advanced and their facial recognition feature links to National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).
governments have also unveiled their plans to install CCTV cameras in
their respective jurisdictions.
PTA continues to block over 80,000 websites on grounds of morality and
obscenity. Another 200,000 links containing ‘objectionable’ content remains inaccessible in Pakistani
cyberspace. In January 2016, PTA on the directions of the Supreme Court
also instructed the internet service providers (ISPs) to block 400,000 ‘objectionable’ websites
at domain level. However, ISPs reported back that blocking at such a
mass scale would be costly.
However, all the websites marked to be blocked were not containing the
above-mentioned content. Pakistani government also frequently requests
Facebook, Twitter and Google to restrict or remove what they deem to be
‘objectionable content’ in Pakistan.
According to the Facebook transparency report,
for the first six months of 2016, it received 719 requests from
Pakistani authorities requiring data related to criminal cases, as well
as information on 1,029 user accounts. PTA also made 280 requests to
Facebook to retain information, while 363 user account data was
requested to be preserved for official criminal investigations for 90
days. Facebook also received 25 requests to restrict objectionable and
allegedly blasphemous content under the local laws. Between January to
June 2014, Facebook restricted 1,773 pieces of content in Pakistan
under local blasphemy laws and prohibition of criticism on the state.
Pakistan also made a total of 9 removal requests from Twitter between
January and June 2016.
On March 27, 2017, the Interior Ministry informed the Islamabad High
Court while hearing a case related to online blasphemous content that
Facebook removed 85% of ‘objectionable’ material requested by the
government of Pakistan.
YouTube remained blocked in Pakistan between September 2012 and January
2016 due to release of a movie trailer, ‘Innocence of Muslims’. However,
Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoIT&T)
claimed that YouTube agreed with the government of Pakistan to entertain content blocking and removal requests from Pakistan
cyberspace. Google has since launched a country specific version of YouTube. The new homepage
contains content that is curated specifically for Pakistani users that
they would see by default when they access YouTube from within Pakistan.
Reported cases of internet censorship and surveillance
Censorship in Pakistan has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks in
the way of ensuring swift, open and uninterrupted access to the
Internet. Multiple factors have been restricting the access and
associated rights, including enabling right of the freedom of expression
in online spaces.
Censorship of erotic expression
Since enactment of PECA in 2016, the government has become more
empowered to block online expression, and remove/filter digital content
under the broad and subjective provisions related to “objectionable
content”. In recent months, dozens of cases of blocking and censoring
content have been reported on account of obscenity, blasphemy, piecing
criticism or political dissent against the government and military
policies, matters related to national security, etc. In the pretext of
blasphemy, Pakistan placed a blanket ban on Youtube in September 2012,
which was restored after three and a half years after reaching an
agreement between the government of Pakistan and Google that the latter
will entertain future requests to block objectionable content.
In March 2016, PTA submitted a report in the Supreme Court stating that
access to at least 84,000 websites and pages have been restricted in Pakistan
on account of salacious content. The report further informed the court
that another list containing 400,000 links was also handed over to ISPs
for blocking at domain level. PTCL informed that it had blocked 200,000
links. However, PTA also expressed its inability to complete this task
because it was an expensive exercise for ISPs.
‘Deviant Art’ is another online networking space for ‘artists and art
enthusiasts’ aimed to promote liberation of creative expression. The
platform is actively being used by Pakistani artists and graphic
designers to publish their artistic expression. Bytes for All
intermittently receives complaints from Deviant Art’s Pakistani
subscribers regarding its inaccessibility inside Pakistan. In March
2014, it was first reported by Anime Artists of Pakistan that the website was blocked
in Pakistan. However, it remained accessible until recently when Bytes
for All received another complaint from a Karachi based user. After
several weeks of being blocked, it is now accessible again in Pakistan.
Censorship of political dissent
The more concerning is the fact, the government has arbitrarily been
blocking websites and blogs who would express political dissent online.
‘Khabaristan Times’ was an online portal until January 25, 2017, who
produced regular blogs on major national developments in satirical
style. Sources privy to PTA confirmed to Bytes for All that they blocked
the website for unspecified objectionable content. Admins of Khabaristan
Times’s Facebook page on January 30 updated its readers that their website was blocked by the authorities
without serving any notice and giving chance to respond to the
‘The Baloch Hal’ is another example of crushing political dissent
of an ethnicity in Pakistan by the State. PTA blocked the website in
2010 and the ban still continues. This portal was the first online
English language newspaper of Baluchistan province, which was founded in
November 2009. Because of its liberal point of view and touching upon
the sensitive conflict related issues in Baluchistan, PTA put it
offline. Subsequently, the editor-in-chief of the Baloch Hal, Malik Siraj Akbar
allegedly received life threats from the government and intelligence
agencies, forcing him to live in exile in the United States.
In April 2015, PTA also blocked a political forum Siasat.PK, which has a
known anti-government stance. Siasat.pk is a famous platform where
people express their criticism against the government. The case was
reported in Pakistani media and after receiving public pressure, the
government restored the forum.
Currently, there has been an ongoing crackdown against
politico-religious dissent expressed on social media, which enjoys the
patronage of the State. A mass censorship campaign is being pushed
through a multi-actor approach where the ministry of interior, ministry
of information technology and telecommunication, federal investigation
agency, PTA and Islamabad High Court (IHC) are on the driving seat.
The State has taken a strict stance against online blasphemy and
criticism on Pakistan military. A petition against online blasphemy and
alleged involvement of four bloggers for expressing hate against Islam
and military was registered in IHC. The court ordered the concerned
departments to take stringent measures for protecting the sanctity of
Islam and prophet Muhammad (PBUH). PTA, PEMRA and PCP ran a coordinated
media campaign warning public to limit their expression according to
Article 19, whereby any expression against “integrity of Islam” and
“national security” is unlawful. PTA also sent text messages (SMS) to
mobile users urging them to complain against those involved in
production and circulation of blasphemy or anti-military content online.
PTA also wrote to the Facebook and Twitter to remove accounts and
anti-Islam content from their platforms. Consequently, the Facebook and
Twitter pages Mochi, Bhensa and Roshni were blocked which were managed
by four bloggers who went
missing in January 2017.
Censorship of religious expression
The pretext of “objectionable content” in Pakistan is overbroad and
subjective. Like opposition to political dissent, religious expression
of faith-based minorities is censored. Ahmadiyya, Qadiani or Lahori
Group is the most persecuted community of the country, who were declared
non-Muslim through 2nd Amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan in
1974. Since then, Ahmadiyya have been pushed toward the periphery of the
society. The Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) criminalizes their religious
expression in public. Similar to physical spaces, their religious
expression in online spaces in Pakistan is also banned. In July 2012,
PTA blocked Ahmadiyya website, ‘Al-Islam”, which is still inaccessible.
Similarly, their other websites including official website of ‘Ahmadiyya
Anjuman Isha’at-e-Islam Lahore’ and ‘The Persecution of Ahmadiyya
Community’ are also blocked.
Use of intrusive FinFisher and HackingTeam solutions
The government has been using intrusive technology such as FinFisher
that surveils private communications. FinFisher offers different
that silently sit in the recipient’s digital devices and enable remote
surveillance such as keylogging, webcam/microphone access, and password
collection. In addition, Pakistan contacted HackingTeam
to acquire a similar type of intrusion malware suites.
Punjab government’s initiative binds all hotels in Lahore to share
guests’ data including foreigners with the city police. Hotel Eye software is introduced which is attached with crime database in their control room.
Pakistan lacks in legislative framework that would protect data of
In the absence of safeguards, such as judicial oversight, state
institutions have been carrying out surveillance on digital
communications of individuals, groups and organisations. There is
increasing concern that local law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and
intelligence agencies have the ability to access into a range of devices
to capture data, encrypted or otherwise. Following guidelines set out by
the government, courts and ministry of information technology, PTA and
multiple law enforcement agencies are able to conduct online surveillance and lawfully intercept
and monitor data.
The state appears to be using the 2002 Electronic Transaction Ordinance,
the Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013 and the Pakistan
Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act 1996 to collect privileged
communication and conduct broad surveillance.
Methodology: Measuring internet censorship in Pakistan
The methodology of this study includes the following:
A list of URLs
that are relevant and commonly accessed in Pakistan was created by the
Citizen Lab in 2014 for the purpose of enabling network measurement
researchers to examine their accessibility in Pakistan. As part of this
study, this list of URLs was reviewed to include additional URLs which -
along with other URLs
that are commonly accessed around the world - were tested for blocking
based on OONI’s free software tests. Such tests were
run from local vantage points in Pakistan, and they also examined
whether systems that are responsible for censorship, surveillance and
traffic manipulation were present in the tested network. Once network
measurement data was collected from these tests, the data was
subsequently processed and analyzed based on a standardized set of
heuristics for detecting internet censorship and traffic manipulation.
The testing period for this study started on 5th October 2014 and
concluded on 22nd September 2017.
Review of the Citizen Lab’s test list for Pakistan
An important part of identifying censorship is determining which
websites to test for blocking.
OONI’s software (called
OONI Probe) is designed to examine URLs contained in specific lists
(“test lists”) for censorship. By default, OONI Probe examines the
“global test list”,
which includes a wide range of internationally relevant websites, most
of which are in English. These websites fall under 30 categories,
which help ensure that a wide range of different types of sites are
In addition to testing the URLs included in the global test list,
OONI Probe is also designed to examine a test list which is specifically
created for the country that the user is running OONI Probe from, if such
a list exists. Unlike the global test list, country-specific test lists
include websites that are relevant and commonly accessed within specific
countries, often in local languages. Similarly to the global test list,
country-specific test lists include websites that fall under the same
set of 30 categories.
All test lists are managed by the Citizen Lab on
GitHub. As part of this
study, the Citizen Lab’s test list for Pakistan
was reviewed and more URLs were added to be tested for censorship.
Overall, 950 URLs
that are relevant to Pakistan were tested. The URLs included in the
Citizen Lab’s global list
(including 1,107 different URLs) were also tested.
It is important to acknowledge that the findings of this study are only
limited to the websites that were tested, and do not necessarily provide
a complete view of other censorship events that may have occurred during
the testing period.
OONI network measurement tests
As part of this study, the following OONI software tests were run:
The Web Connectivity test was run with the aim of examining whether a
set of URLs (included in both the “global test list”
and the recently updated
“Pakistani test list”)
were blocked during the testing period and if so, how. The Vanilla Tor
test was run to examine the reachability of the Tor network, while the
tests were run to examine whether these instant messaging apps were
blocked in Iran during the testing period. The remaining tests were run
with the aim of examining whether “middleboxes” (systems placed in the
network between the user and a control server) that could potentially be
responsible for censorship and/or surveillance were present in the
The sections below document how each of these tests are designed.
examines whether websites are reachable and if they are not, it attempts
to determine whether access to them is blocked through DNS tampering,
TCP/IP blocking or by a transparent HTTP proxy. Specifically, this test
is designed to perform the following:
HTTP GET request
By default, this test performs the above (excluding the first step,
which is performed only over the network of the user) both over a
control server and over the network of the user. If the results from
both networks match, then there is no clear sign of network
interference; but if the results are different, the websites that the
user is testing are likely censored.
Further information is provided below, explaining how each step
performed under the web connectivity test works.
1. Resolver identification
The domain name system (DNS) is what is responsible for transforming a
host name (e.g. torproject.org) into an IP address (e.g. 22.214.171.124).
Internet Service Providers (ISPs), amongst others, run DNS resolvers
which map IP addresses to hostnames. In some circumstances though, ISPs
map the requested host names to the wrong IP addresses, which is a form
As a first step, the web connectivity test attempts to identify which
DNS resolver is being used by the user. It does so by performing a DNS
query to special domains (such as whoami.akamai.com) which will disclose
the IP address of the resolver.
2. DNS lookup
Once the web connectivity test has identified the DNS resolver of the
user, it then attempts to identify which addresses are mapped to the
tested host names by the resolver. It does so by performing a DNS
lookup, which asks the resolver to disclose which IP addresses are
mapped to the tested host names, as well as which other host names are
linked to the tested host names under DNS queries.
3. TCP connect
The web connectivity test will then try to connect to the tested
websites by attempting to establish a TCP session on port 80 (or port
443 for URLs that begin with HTTPS) for the list of IP addresses that
were identified in the previous step (DNS lookup).
4. HTTP GET request
As the web connectivity test connects to tested websites (through the
previous step), it sends requests through the HTTP protocol to the
servers which are hosting those websites. A server normally responds to
an HTTP GET request with the content of the webpage that is requested.
Comparison of results: Identifying censorship
Once the above steps of the web connectivity test are performed both
over a control server and over the network of the user, the collected
results are then compared with the aim of identifying whether and how
tested websites are tampered with. If the compared results do not
match, then there is a sign of network interference.
Below are the conditions under which the following types of blocking are
DNS blocking: If the DNS responses (such as the IP addresses mapped to host names) do not match.
TCP/IP blocking: If a TCP session to connect to websites was not established over the network of the user.
HTTP blocking: If the HTTP request over the user’s network failed, or the HTTP status codes don’t match, or all of the following apply:
The body length of compared websites (over the control server and the network of the user) differs by some percentage
The HTTP headers names do not match
The HTML title tags do not match
It’s important to note, however, that DNS resolvers, such as Google or a
local ISP, often provide users with IP addresses that are closest to
them geographically. Often this is not done with the intent of network
tampering, but merely for the purpose of providing users with localized
content or faster access to websites. As a result, some false positives
might arise in OONI measurements. Other false positives might occur when
tested websites serve different content depending on the country that
the user is connecting from, or in the cases when websites return
failures even though they are not tampered with.
HTTP Invalid Request Line test
tries to detect the presence of network components (“middle box”) which
could be responsible for censorship and/or traffic manipulation.
Instead of sending a normal HTTP request, this test sends an invalid
HTTP request line - containing an invalid HTTP version number, an
invalid field count and a huge request method – to an echo service
listening on the standard HTTP port. An echo service is a very useful
debugging and measurement tool, which simply sends back to the
originating source any data it receives. If a middle box is not present
in the network between the user and an echo service, then the echo
service will send the invalid HTTP request line back to the user,
exactly as it received it. In such cases, there is no visible traffic
manipulation in the tested network.
If, however, a middle box is present in the tested network, the invalid
HTTP request line will be intercepted by the middle box and this may
trigger an error and that will subsequently be sent back to OONI’s
server. Such errors indicate that software for traffic manipulation is
likely placed in the tested network, though it’s not always clear what
that software is. In some cases though, censorship and/or surveillance
vendors can be identified through the error messages in the received
HTTP response. Based on this technique, OONI has previously
detected the use
of BlueCoat, Squid and Privoxy proxy technologies in networks across
multiple countries around the world.
It’s important though to note that a false negative could potentially
occur in the hypothetical instance that ISPs are using highly
sophisticated censorship and/or surveillance software that is
specifically designed to not trigger errors when receiving invalid HTTP
request lines like the ones of this test. Furthermore, the presence of a
middle box is not necessarily indicative of traffic manipulation, as
they are often used in networks for caching purposes.
also tries to detect the presence of network components (“middle box”)
which could be responsible for censorship and/or traffic manipulation.
HTTP is a protocol which transfers or exchanges data across the
internet. It does so by handling a client’s request to connect to a
server, and a server’s response to a client’s request. Every time a user
connects to a server, the user (client) sends a request through the HTTP
protocol to that server. Such requests include “HTTP headers”, which
transmit various types of information, including the user’s device
operating system and the type of browser that is being used. If Firefox
is used on Windows, for example, the “user agent header” in the HTTP
request will tell the server that a Firefox browser is being used on a
Windows operating system.
This test emulates an HTTP request towards a server, but sends HTTP
headers that have variations in capitalization. In other words, this
test sends HTTP requests which include valid, but non-canonical HTTP
headers. Such requests are sent to a backend control server which sends
back any data it receives. If OONI receives the HTTP headers exactly as
they were sent, then there is no visible presence of a “middle box” in
the network that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance
and/or traffic manipulation. If, however, such software is present in
the tested network, it will likely normalize the invalid headers that
are sent or add extra headers.
Depending on whether the HTTP headers that are sent and received from a
backend control server are the same or not, OONI is able to evaluate
whether software – which could be responsible for traffic manipulation –
is present in the tested network.
False negatives, however, could potentially occur in the hypothetical
instance that ISPs are using highly sophisticated software that is
specifically designed to not interfere with HTTP headers when it
receives them. Furthermore, the presence of a middle box is not
necessarily indicative of traffic manipulation, as they are often used
in networks for caching purposes.
Vanilla Tor test
examines the reachability of the Tor network, which is designed for online
anonymity and censorship circumvention.
The Vanilla Tor test attempts to start a connection to the Tor network.
If the test successfully bootstraps a connection within a predefined
amount of seconds (300 by default), then Tor is considered to be
reachable from the vantage point of the user. But if the test does not
manage to establish a connection, then the Tor network is likely blocked
within the tested network.
is designed to examine the reachability of both WhatsApp’s app and the
WhatsApp web version within a network.
OONI’s WhatsApp test attempts to perform an HTTP GET request, TCP
connection and DNS lookup to WhatsApp’s endpoints, registration service
and web version over the vantage point of the user. Based on this
methodology, WhatsApp’s app is likely blocked if any of the following
TCP connections to WhatsApp’s endpoints fail;
TCP connections to WhatsApp’s registration service fail;
DNS lookups resolve to IP addresses that are not allocated to WhatsApp;
HTTP requests to WhatsApp’s registration service do not send back a response to OONI’s servers.
WhatsApp’s web interface (web.whatsapp.com) is likely if any of the
TCP connections to web.whatsapp.com fail;
DNS lookups illustrate that a different IP address has been allocated to web.whatsapp.com;
HTTP requests to web.whatsapp.com do not send back a consistent response to OONI’s servers.
Facebook Messenger test
is designed to examine the reachability of Facebook Messenger within a
OONI’s Facebook Messenger test attempts to perform a TCP connection and
DNS lookup to Facebook’s endpoints over the vantage point of the user.
Based on this methodology, Facebook Messenger is likely blocked if one
or both of the following apply:
OONI’s data pipeline
processes all network measurements that it collects, including the
following types of data:
OONI by default collects the code which corresponds to the country from
which the user is running OONI Probe tests from, by automatically
searching for it based on the user’s IP address through the MaxMind GeoIP database. The collection of
country codes is an important part of OONI’s research, as it enables
OONI to map out global network measurements and to identify where
network interferences take place.
Autonomous System Number (ASN)
OONI by default collects the Autonomous System Number (ASN) which
corresponds to the network that a user is running OONI Probe tests from.
The collection of the ASN is useful to OONI’s research because it
reveals the specific network provider (such as Vodafone) of a user. Such
information can increase transparency in regards to which network
providers are implementing censorship or other forms of network
Date and time of measurements
OONI by default collects the time and date of when tests were run. This
information helps OONI evaluate when network interferences occur and to
compare them across time.
IP addresses and other information
OONI does not deliberately collect or store users’ IP addresses. In
fact, OONI takes measures to remove users’ IP addresses from the
collected measurements, to protect its users from potential risks.
However, OONI might unintentionally collect users’ IP addresses and
other potentially personally-identifiable information, if such
information is included in the HTTP headers or other metadata of
measurements. This, for example, can occur if the tested websites
include tracking technologies or custom content based on a user’s
The types of network measurements that OONI collects depend on the types
of tests that are run. Specifications about each OONI test can be viewed
through its git repository,
and details about what collected network measurements entail can be
viewed through OONI Explorer or through
OONI processes the above types of data with the aim of deriving meaning
from the collected measurements and, specifically, in an attempt to
answer the following types of questions:
Which types of OONI tests were run?
In which countries were those tests run?
In which networks were those tests run?
When were tests run?
What types of network interference occurred?
In which countries did network interference occur?
In which networks did network interference occur?
When did network interference occur?
How did network interference occur?
To answer such questions, OONI’s pipeline is designed to process data
which is automatically sent to OONI’s measurement collector by default.
The initial processing of network measurements enables the following:
Attributing measurements to a specific country.
Attributing measurements to a specific network within a country.
Distinguishing measurements based on the specific tests that were run for their collection.
Distinguishing between “normal” and “anomalous” measurements (the latter indicating that a form of network tampering is likely present).
Identifying the type of network interference based on a set of heuristics for DNS tampering, TCP/IP blocking, and HTTP blocking.
Identifying block pages based on a set of heuristics for HTTP blocking.
Identifying the presence of “middleboxes” within tested networks.
However, false positives can emerge within the processed data due to a
number of reasons. As explained previously (section on “OONI network
measurements”), DNS resolvers (operated by Google or a local ISP) often
provide users with IP addresses that are closest to them geographically.
While this may appear to be a case of DNS tampering, it is actually done
with the intention of providing users with faster access to websites.
Similarly, false positives may emerge when tested websites serve
different content depending on the country that the user is connecting
from, or in the cases when websites return failures even though they are
not tampered with.
Furthermore, measurements indicating HTTP or TCP/IP blocking might
actually be due to temporary HTTP or TCP/IP failures, and may not
conclusively be a sign of network interference. It is therefore
important to test the same sets of websites across time and to
cross-correlate data, prior to reaching a conclusion on whether websites
are in fact being blocked.
Since block pages differ from country to country and sometimes even from
network to network, it is quite challenging to accurately identify them.
OONI uses a series of heuristics to try to guess if the page in question
differs from the expected control, but these heuristics can often result
in false positives. For this reason OONI only says that there is a
confirmed instance of blocking when a block page is detected.
OONI’s methodology for detecting the presence of “middleboxes” - systems
that could be responsible for censorship, surveillance and traffic
manipulation - can also present false negatives, if ISPs are using
highly sophisticated software that is specifically designed to not
interfere with HTTP headers when it receives them, or to not trigger
error messages when receiving invalid HTTP request lines. It remains
unclear though if such software is being used. Moreover, it’s important
to note that the presence of a middle box is not necessarily indicative
of censorship or traffic manipulation, as such systems are often used in
networks for caching purposes.
Upon collection of more network measurements, OONI continues to develop
its data analysis heuristics, based on which it attempts to accurately
identify censorship events.
We confirm the blocking of 210 websites in Pakistan over the last
three years, all of which are available here. Network measurements collected from
22 local networks show that ISPs blocked these sites by means of DNS
tampering and by serving block pages through the use of HTTP transparent
Many block pages were only served for specific web pages hosted on HTTP,
rather than for entire services (which could potentially lead to certain
political and/or social cost). It’s worth noting though that we didn’t
find any sites hosted on HTTPS to be blocked in the country throughout
the testing period, and that many of the blocked URLs now support HTTPS.
Censorship in Pakistan, according to OONI data, is mostly limited to
pornography (which is
Pakistan) and to sites hosting religious content considered blasphemous
and political dissent. We also found a relatively large amount of
circumvention tool sites (mainly web proxies) to be blocked, along with
various other types of sites that fall under 22 different categories
overall, as illustrated in the graph below.
These sites were not found to be blocked by all ISPs in Pakistan during
the testing period, particularly since most network measurements were
only collected from one network. A database detailing how and which URLs
were blocked (and not blocked) across the 22 probed ISPs is available
Khabaristan Times, a Pakistani news
satire publication that reports on national and local issues, was
in January 2017. As part of our testing, we collected one measurement
indicating that this site was likely blocked by means of DNS tampering.
This is also consistent with what locals in Pakistan reported to be
experiencing when attempting to access khabaristantimes.com, which
points to a message saying that the DNS address for the site could not
be found. While we think it’s most likely the case that this site is
blocked in Pakistan by means of DNS tampering, we cannot confirm this
finding since only one measurement
was collected during the testing period of this study.
Multiple middleboxes were detected across networks in Pakistan. However,
it remains unclear whether these middleboxes are used for implementing
internet censorship or for other networking purposes (such as
In general, most international sites and services were accessible, and
and Facebook Messenger tests
confirmed the accessibility of these apps during the testing period.
Censorship circumvention tools, such as the Tor network, were mostly
The Baluchis are an ethnic minority in Pakistan and one of
Asia’s cross-border minorities, divided between Pakistan, Iran, and
Afghanistan. Since 1948, the Baluch nationalists have waged a guerilla war
against the government of Pakistan, demanding political autonomy and
greater control over Balochistan’s natural resources. Amnesty
that many Baluch activists, teachers, journalists, and lawyers have
disappeared or been murdered in “kill and dump” operations by
authorities, while attacks by Baluch armed groups have endangered
As part of this study, we found various Baluch sites to be blocked, as
illustrated in the table below.
|Probed ASN||Blocked URL||Blockpage|
URLs include the site of the Sweden-based
Baluchistan People’s Party, which
reports on human
rights violations against the Baluchi. Other blocked URLs include Baluch
news sites and independence sites, the blocking of which can probably be
attributed to the sensitive political climate. The blocking of
balochvoice.com, which currently
serves as a resource for Search
Engine Optimization (SEO) and online marketing, suggests that Pakistani
ISPs might be blocking Baluch sites almost indiscriminately.
The Hazara ethnic minority in Pakistan has also experienced
discrimination and abuse by authorities, as
by Human Rights Watch. OONI data
confirms the blocking of hazara.net, a non-profit which emerged in 1998
as a “direct response to the Hazara genocide in Afghanistan” and which
reports on human rights abuse
against the Hazara community.
It’s worth noting that none of the blocked Baluchi sites, nor
hazara.net, support encrypted HTTPS connections. As a result, the
blocking of these sites is enforced more than that of other blocked
sites that support HTTPS (potentially enabling censorship
A list of all other observed blocked sites in Pakistan is available
Blasphemy is a serious crime in Pakistan. Penalties for blasphemy
against Islam, under Pakistan’s Penal Code,
can range from a fine to a death sentence. According to OONI testing,
this prohibition is also enforced in the digital world.
Many of the URLs that we found to be blocked in Pakistan express
criticism towards Islam, prophet Mohammad and other sacred personalities
of religion Islam (and can be viewed as blasphemous), as illustrated in
the table below.
|Probed ASN||Blocked URL||Blockpage|
Most of the blocked URLs host content pertaining to “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”,
a controversial and viral online campaign that encouraged artists around
the world to draw representations of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. U.S.
cartoonist Molly Norris started the campaign in 2010 in response to
online death threats made against the creators of the “South Park” show,
which attempted to satirize the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
Many web pages, including satirical (and arguably offensive)
representations of Mohammed as part of the “Draw Mohammed Day” campaign,
are hosted on internationally popular platforms, such as youtube.com,
twitter.com and buzzfeed.com. Rather than blocking access to the entire
services, OONI data shows
that Pakistani ISPs selectively censored those web pages during the
testing period. This was possible in previous years, when OONI testing
started in Pakistan, since those sites did not support HTTPS at the
time. Today though, such sites automatically redirect users to HTTPS and
it’s not possible for the censor to tailor censorship to specific
content of encrypted sites.
Rather than blocking the HTTPS version of sites (making popular services
completely inaccessible), Pakistan has taken a different approach. As of
January 2016, Pakistan has a localized version of YouTube
that allows the government to demand removal of material it considers
illegal or offensive. Google has argued that it will only remove content
following a review process that examines whether government requests are
in compliance with the country’s laws.
Many other sites hosting content considered blasphemous towards Islam
were found to be blocked, as illustrated in the above table. These
include a YouTube clip featuring
a 2008 short film by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, which can be
perceived as inciting hatred towards Muslims. In 2008, Pakistan
initially tried to ban this film by blocking access to YouTube entirely.
But after a Pakistani ISP accidentally blocked worldwide (instead of domestic) access to youtube.com for
several hours, the censorship was then limited to the specific HTTP
Youtube page hosting the film.
Even though the Wikipedia page on Muhammed is not linked (at
least not directly) to “Draw Mohammed Day”, we found it to be
A list of all other observed blocked sites in Pakistan is available
Acknowledgement of limitations
The findings of this study present limitations.
The first limitation is associated with the testing period. This study
includes an analysis of thousands of network measurements
collected from 22 networks in Pakistan over the last three years,
between 5th October 2014 to 22nd September 2017. Censorship events that
may have occurred before and/or after the testing period are not
analysed as part of this study.
Another limitation to this study is associated to the amount and types
of URLs that were tested for censorship. As mentioned in the methodology
section of this report, OONI’s Web Connectivity test was run to
examine the accessibility of 950 URLs
that are more relevant to the Pakistani context and 1,107 internationally relevant sites.
All of these URLs were selected and categorized in collaboration with
community members over the last years. We acknowledge that some URLs
might potentially be mis-categorized, the selection of the URLs may have
been biased, and that the testing sample of URLs might exclude many
other sites that are also blocked in Pakistan. We therefore encourage
researchers and community members to continue reviewing and contributing to these test lists,
to help improve future research and analysis.
Finally, while network measurements were collected from 22 local vantage
points in Pakistan, OONI’s software tests were not run
consistently across all networks. The vast majority of measurements were
only collected from one network (AS23674).
OONI network measurements
collected from Pakistan over the last three years confirm the blocking
of 210 websites, many of which express religious criticism and are
considered blasphemous under Pakistan’s Penal Code for hosting content
related to the controversial “Draw Mohammed Day”. We also found a
relatively large amount of web proxies to be blocked, though censorship
circumvention tools, like the Tor network, were mostly accessible
throughout the testing period.
Pakistani ISPs appear to be applying “smart filters”, selectively
blocking specific HTTP web pages that host illegal or offensive content,
rather than blocking entire services. This was particularly observed
when such content is hosted on popular platforms, like youtube.com or
twitter.com, potentially suggesting a certain social and/or political
cost to implementing censorship. Many of those web pages now support
HTTPS, enabling censorship circumvention. We didn’t find any HTTPS sites
to be blocked during the testing period.
Most internationally popular sites and services, like
and Facebook Messenger,
were accessible in Pakistan. Minority groups however likely have a
harder time expressing their voices online, as suggested by the
blocking of various Baluchi
sites. The fact that a wide range of Baluchi sites were blocked also
indicates that internet censorship in Pakistan may be implemented to
reinforce geopolitical dynamics of power.
We thank all the anonymous volunteers in Pakistan who have run and
continue to run OONI Probe, thus making this research possible.