Pakistan using Netsweeper to block Internet content, say researchers

Many technology companies have said they would not supply equipment to an Internet filtering and blocking project of the Pakistan government

Web content filtering company Netsweeper has supplied its products to Pakistan, even as some top IT companies have refused to supply gear for a controversial filtering project, a Canadian research group has disclosed.

The new report released Thursday by Citizen Lab, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, finds that Pakistan is actively filtering content, with Netsweeper filtering devices actively used to censor content on an ISP-wide level in Pakistan.

The Canadian company has supplied its filtering products to the Pakistan Telecommunication Company, which is Pakistan's largest telecommunications company and also operates the Pakistan Internet Exchange Point. The operator did not immediately return calls for comment.

"The fact that Pakistan has deployed the Netsweeper filtering technology at the national Internet Exchange level is a significant development giving the potential of extending Internet censorship to lower-level ISPs in the country," the report said.

Besides using technology from the Canadian company to block websites, ISPs also use other less transparent methods, such as DNS tampering. The targets include websites of secessionist movements, independent media and those covering sensitive religious topics.

The lab used for its research tools such as Shodan, a search engine that lists IP addresses of externally visible devices on the Internet, and scanned for keywords and URL fragments previously associated with censorship devices. Testers in the country also used software developed by the lab to track instances of Internet filtering.

"It is unfortunate that despite the re-establishment of peoples' democracy within the country, certain elements continue to enforce mass online censorship, disabling citizens from learning to make responsible decisions themselves," said civil rights group Bytes for All Pakistan, referring to parliamentary elections last month in the country. The group said it will will submit the report to the Lahore High Court, which is hearing a public interest litigation relating to freedom of expression.

Pakistan has a long record of filtering and blocking websites, including YouTube which it blocked in September after a video clip that mocks the Prophet Muhammad was posted to the site.

In February last year, Pakistan floated a request for proposal for a system to filter and block websites, some months after curbing the use of encryption on the Internet, and considering the idea of filtering and blocking SMS messages in the country.

The proposed National URL Filtering and Blocking System should be capable of URL (uniform resource locator) filtering and blocking, from domain level to sub-folder, file levels and file types, and each hardware box in the modular architecture should be able to handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs with processing delay of not more than 1 milliseconds, according to the RFP posted on its website by the National ICT R&D Fund of the country's ministry of information technology.

Following protests from civil rights groups, five international companies known to sell surveillance, filtering and blocking systems committed not to apply for the project.

Websense, for example, said it would not submit a response to the RFP, as it does not sell to governments or ISPs that are engaged in government-imposed censorship.

Citizen Lab asked in the report a number of questions directed at Netsweeper, including whether it has a human rights policy for its technologies and sales strategy. Netsweeper did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lab earlier discovered a FinFisher command and control server in Pakistan. The surveillance technology is sold by the Gamma Group in the U.K., and has been used to "surveil journalists, dissidents, and activists in a number of countries," according to the Lab.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is

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