FEATURE-Pakistan's internet censors seek help from Canadian company

Wed Sep 18, 2013 4:42am EDT
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By Katharine Houreld

ISLAMABAD, Sept 18 (Reuters) - In a nondescript, creeper-draped building in the capital of Islamabad, a small team of men is purging Pakistan's Internet.

Shadowy government officials are blocking thousands of pages deemed undesirable. But they are not fast enough. So the government is now testing Canadian software that can block millions of sites a second.

The censorship helps shape the views of 180 million Pakistanis on militancy, democracy and religion. Online debates dissect attacks by U.S. drone aircraft, the uneasy alliance with the United States and prospects for peace with arch rival India.

But activists say liberal voices are increasingly silenced while militants speak freely. They worry customised filters will only deepen that divide.

"Secular, progressive and liberal voices are being increasingly targeted," said Shahzad Ahmad, the founder of Bytes For All, which campaigns for internet freedoms from a small, crowded office. "Anything can be banned without debate."

An internet provider who declined to be identified said the number of banned pages doubled in five years, partly a reaction to cartoons or films offensive to Muslims.

Citizen Lab, a research centre at the University of Toronto, published a report in June showing the Pakistani government was testing filtering software supplied by Canadian firm Netsweeper.

The Pakistani government and Netsweeper declined to comment.   Continued...