In February 2012, the Pakistani government published a tender encouraging Information Technology (IT) companies to submit bids for a contract to design and implement a URL blocking and filtering system in the country. Roughly a week after this tender was published in a widely-read Pakistani newspaper, local CSO Bolo Bhi, meaning ‘speak up’ in Urdu, published an online petition calling for international IT companies to refrain from submitting bids for the contract. Bolo Bhi framed the opening of the tender as a “rare opportunity to pressure companies to publicly commit not to apply for this contract and to ensure global companies adhere to accepted ethical business standards.”
URL filtration systems are in direct contradiction to the principle of freedom of speech. In theory the right to free expression extends over the internet, and this tender signalled the Pakistani government’s intention to expand its control over access to certain websites. This would give them the ability to censor media they felt were not acceptable and stifle free and open discussion of political issues.
Bolo Bhi enlisted the help of the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) to bring this appeal to targeted corporations. The public momentum for this case took place on two levels – domestic and international. Bolo Bhi was instrumental in coordinating support on the ground in Pakistan, engaging with other CSOs and drafting letters to members of Parliament.
Internationally, the BHRRC was responsible for reaching out to targeted IT companies to convince them to refrain from submitting bids to tender. BHRRC reached out to eight companies in total: Websense, Cisco, Verizon, Sandvine, McAfee, Netsweeper, Blue Coat and ZTE. In response, five of these companies – Websense, Cisco, Verizon, Sandvine, and McAfee – made a public commitment not to submit bids to tender. The connection between Bolo Bhi and BHRRC was crucial to success, as neither level of advocacy would have been successful without the complementary efforts of the other.
Unfortunately, the privately-owned Canadian firm Netsweeper submitted a bid and was awarded the contract. After failed attempts to get comments from Netsweeper, Bolo Bhi wrote a letter to the Canadian government “to fulfil their commitments, to stand by the Canadian Constitution, Canada’s Global Commitment to Internet freedom & assist us (them) in seeking answers from Netsweeper.”
BHRRC also has reached out to Netsweeper business partners to make them aware of the issue, along with an opportunity to comment by leveraging the UN Guiding Principle 13b which requires companies to work to prevent human right violations linked to their business partners.