WASHINGTON – Campaigners urging companies not to bid for a $10 million contract to build an Internet filtering system for Pakistan have met with some success, according to US media reports.

A deadline set by the Pakistani government for tenders to create a controversial national Internet filtering system passed Friday, with some companies still to announce whether they intend to bid for the contract. The proposed ‘National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System’ has provoked outrage from campaigners, and resulted in several companies publicly declining to bid for the project, describing it as ‘morally wrong’.

In February, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA) published a very public tender for the ‘development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and booking system’. The project, the details of which were announced on the website of the Information and Communications Technology Ministry’s Research and Development Fund, will be worth $10m to the successful bidder. The Pakistani govt even took out newspaper ads to publicise the project.

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 websites using current manual blocking systems(…)The system would have a central database of undesirable URLs.

Activists were quick to register their opposition to the proposed filtering system. According to the EFF, the project comes as part of a broader trend towards ‘moral policing’ in Pakistan.

The PTA blocked thousands of sites in 2007 — not just those containing pornographic material or content offensive to Islam, but numerous vital websites and services — in response to a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the blocking of ‘blasphemous’ websites. In May of 2010, the PTA blocked Facebook in response to a controversy over a competition to draw the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him).

The number of Facebook users in Pakistan is believed to be around 50 million. Reporters Without Borders, who ranked Pakistan 151st out of 179 countries in terms of media freedom in 2011, have also expressed concern about the project.

The New York Times wrote that a group in Pakistan had urged several companies not to provide filtering technology to the government, and that some of them — Verizon and Websense, as well as the two Silicon Valley companies mentioned above — had agreed.

The campaign is unusual in that it seeks to name and shame companies before they make a deal with a government that seeks to filter the Internet.

Cisco Systems, which has faced widespread criticism for the deployment of its technology in building the Internet firewall in China, has also said it will not bid on the proposal, as have Verizon and Websense. The holdouts include Huawei of China, the Times said.

Advocacy groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have backed the Bolo Bhi campaign. “Sometimes there are lines that companies cannot cross without becoming complicit in human rights violations,” the center said.