June 21, 2022 – The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has set off a heated debate on social media with its new rules to block “objectionable” online content by reportedly attempting to block global DNS (Domain Name System) and setting up a centralised DNS. The reports have sparked an outpouring of concerns, with users calling the new policy another attempt to allow a formulated control on the internet and a tool to surveil citizens’ online activities. The PTA, however, released a statement addressing what the telecom authority has termed “baseless accusations” and “lack of understanding about the DNS”.
On April 12, the telecom authority announced that it was introducing a Central Domain Name System (C-DNS) to block immoral content on the internet. The PTA stated that the mechanism would block access to pornographic and indecent content as specified in Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, also known as PECA. According to PTA, the C-DNS mechanism took months of joint efforts and coordination with telecom firms and other stakeholders.
“Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has implemented the Central Domain Name System (C-DNS) policy enforcement mechanism to ensure the automated effective and seamless blocking of unlawful content in real-time,” PTA had stated in the notification.
Through C-DNS, the PTA directed the service providers to block access to the websites the authority deems to be carrying “objectionable” content. The PTA, however, is now said to be taking over the Domain Name System (DNS) servers through the C-DNS mechanism.
In simple terms, DNS is a directory of names that match with numbers. It is just like the contact list on a smartphone that matches a recipient’s name with their number and email address. In the digital sphere, this directory is distributed around the world and stored on the DNS servers. When a user enters a URL in the address bar of a browser, their ISP’s DNS looks for the specific IP address for the URL. The DNS responds with the IP address when its server holding that address is found, and fetches it to the user’s browser, which then retrieves the page for the website.
Currently, the PTA places the URLs of pornography websites on DNS servers of the internet operators from its own C-DNS, following which the access to these websites is blocked. Subsequently, the DNS does not pull up the IP addresses of the blocked websites. The new policy, however, will require all service providers across the country to connect to a single centralised DNS server, which will be controlled by the PTA.
The statement released by the PTA suggests that the extent of the technicality of the mechanism in question has not been fully understood, leading to articles “written in haste without in-depth understanding of the DNS working”.
The PTA argues that the implementation of DNS will not slow down internet speed in Pakistan but will improve it instead. The authority rejects the claims that DNS will increase the costs of connectivity services. “It will further save the foreign exchange used to buy the bandwidth being utilised on useless illicit content which was increased in Pakistan some time back.”
It is pertinent to mention that a report published on June 5 in Dawn indicated that there had been disagreements between the PTA and telecom firms over the implementation of C-DNS as it would affect the internet speed and make it costly.
The telecom regulator went on to claim that there is no monitoring mechanism in the DNS server that could undermine a user’s privacy on the internet or surveil their online activities. “It will not affect the IT sector in [any way], as it will not affect the internet, except the illegal content landing [in] Pakistan.”
In response to suggestions that the PTA should adopt a decentralised DNS, the authority said, “It is stated that the DNS is already decentralised, PTA will enforce their policy for blocking of unlawful content as mandated under PECA’s Section 37 across all ISPs/CMOs. Existing process of manual[ly] blocking illegal/harmful content under the law is being automated, hence there is no impact on the internet, quality of the internet, cost of the internet services or does not undermine privacy in [any way].”
Online Censorship in Pakistan
The PTA has time and again attracted outrage, mostly from free speech defenders and content creators, for banning many popular online applications in Pakistan.
The authority has previously attempted to force social media companies compliant with demands like taking action against live videos on online platforms through controversial Social Media Rules. The Rules were challenged by civil society and global technology companies that said that such draconian regulations would make it difficult for social media companies to provide services in Pakistan.
The authority has blocked access to video-sharing application TikTok several times, citing “immoral and indecent” content. The PTA first blocked access to TikTok in October 2020 but unblocked it 10 days later after TikTok’s parent company ByteDance agreed to remove “objectionable” content from being accessed in Pakistan.
In July 2021, a ban was imposed on TikTok for the fourth time before being lifted in November the same year. These recurring bans have been reported to heavily impact small businesses run primarily on the internet.
In July 2020, the PTA also blocked live video streaming smartphone application Bigo Live over “immoral, obscene and vulgar content”.
In 2012, the PTA blocked access to YouTube after an inflammatory video posted on the platform set off a flare-up of protests around Pakistan. The access was restored three years later in 2016 after Google created a localised version of YouTube. Under the new agreement, the PTA could ask Google to remove any content from the platform that it deemed inappropriate.