Pakistan's Internet filter has the Valley buzzing over who's bidding

The bids are now in, but whoever wants a piece of what is almost certainly a juicy contract is keeping quiet--and for good reason.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

It's the bid that dares not (publicly) speak its name.

Friday was the deadline for companies to file their applications to win a piece of a Pakistani project that has stoked controversy stretching from to South Asia to Silicon Valley.

In late February, Pakistan's National ICT R&D Fund, which represents the government, began inviting bids to help create a "national-level URL filtering and blocking system." The system was described as a way to protect the public from "undesirable content."

Many countries have deployed web filtering and blocking systems at the Internet backbones within their countries. However, Pakistani ISPs and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable web sites using current manual blocking systems. A national URL filtering and blocking system is therefore required to be deployed at national IP backbone of the country.

But critics dismiss that claim as a smokescreen for the government to tighten its control over the Internet and choke off dissent. What's really going on, they say, is a Pakistani attempt to duplicate China's sophisticated content-filtering Internet--often referred to as the "Great Firewall."

"This is essentially about government agencies wanting more and more control over public spheres," said Sana Saleem, a Pakistani journalist and blogger who also runs a Karachi-based Internet free speech organization called Bolo Bhi.

The construction of the envisioned system would empower the authorities with a switch they could use to "turn off anything and everything that they deem 'objectionable'--especially in the absence of a legislation or proper definition of the term 'objectionable' or even 'national security," according to Saleem. She said that the project's opponents have heard that Pakistan's National University of Science and Technology may be involved in building and maintaining the system. "Interesting to note that it is a military run institution & beyond ironic that it teaches science and technology," she said.

In the run-up to Friday's deadline, activists published the names of some of the companies believed to be competing for the bid. However, it's difficult to verify the list's accuracy. For instance, it was reported that Cisco had dropped out of the running. But the company maintains that wasn't true. "We don't have the products they're looking for so we didn't bid," a spokesman said. Another company, Blue Coat Systems, whose Internet blocking gear has turned up in Syria also denied its participation or interest in bidding. "Blue Coat did not bid on this opportunity," according to a representative.

So who is emailing in their bids?

"Good luck trying to find out," said an executive at a technology company which sells products to many developing nations including Pakistan. "Nobody here is going to talk about that--nobody. Forget even getting something on background. And don't you dare use our company name."

That extra sensitivity is a response to our 24 x 7 age where companies find themselves under constant scrutiny and a PR disaster is only a tweet away. That increased transparency of the 21st century Internet age is forcing companies to be more circumspect about profiting from doing business with problematic regimes. Groups like the Global Network Initiative--co-founded by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo--and Accessnow.org have urged tech companies not to respond to Pakistan's request for proposals.

It's rare for Silicon Valley companies to take public stands on free speech issues in other countries, but that's changing. The plan to build a new system for Internet filtering and blocking in Pakistan has offered an opportunity for some to claim the high ground. McAfee earlier this week tweeted that it wasn't going to send in an RFP but a spokesman said that future decisions would be applied on a case by case basis. Websense took a stronger stance, putting out a statement on its corporate website urging other companies to "say no to government censorship of the Internet in Pakistan."

As a publicly-traded company, Websense has a financial duty to maximize shareholder value. But in an interview, interim CFO Michael Newman said the company is hoping that the positive publicity from refusing to do business with governments that censor the Internet will more than compensate for any potentially lost revenue. (The company does not disclose how much business it does regionally.)

Social responsibility hasn't traditionally figured as a money maker on the corporate agenda, but Newman said that the uptick in media interest may change opinions.

"In general, the reason why companies are reacting differently is that... folks are being called to task more often than they were several years ago," adding that pressure from organizations like GNI and the Electronic Frontier Foundation is making it harder for Silicon Valley firms to evade questions about the nature of the clients buying their products and services.

"What we hope is that this starts to put economic pressure on (other) companies to follow along," Newman said, noting that the number of companies publicly removing themselves from participation in the Pakistani project remains small-for now.

"This kind of publicity will drive, hopefully, a customer backlash to make them think differently."

Correction: An earlier version of this piece attributed a quote from Sana Saleem referring to Pakistan's ICT R&D Fund. The quote should have referred to the nation's National University of Science and Technology.