Two years on, no light at the end of the tunnel for YouTube

Published: September 18, 2014
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The site has been blocked for over two years now. CREATIVE COMMONS

The site has been blocked for over two years now. CREATIVE COMMONS

KARACHI: Two years, a new government and the promise of change, and at least 20 court hearings later, internet users from Pakistan are still denied access to YouTube. This restriction of access has become the symbol of a state which has increasingly become obsessed with controlling the online space in a non-transparent manner.

The ban had been imposed on September 17, 2012 by then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf following national outrage over a sacrilegious video clip. The video had prompted outrage across the Muslim world and prompted temporary bans on the website in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sudan. Threat of bans in Saudi Arabia prompted YouTube to selectively curb access in that country and it took a court order to censor it in Brazil.

But even after a US court ordered YouTube to take down versions of the video following a suit filed by one of the actors appearing the clip, the site remains inaccessible in Pakistan. The refrain, that the clip hurts religious sentiments of the people, is obscene or hurts national security has acted as an effective screen for a process which is less than transparent and has gone on to impact services and content beyond just pornography and blasphemous videos.

“We should understand that our government has realised the power of online media and is afraid of political dissent which finds space on the Internet,” says Nighat Dad, founder and director of Digital Rights Foundation.

“We have witnessed in the past that Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) has been trying to curb political dissent and we have examples like taking down Asif Zardari shut up video and Laal musical band’s Facebook page.”

The extent of blocking by the government through the Inter-Ministerial Committee has gone on to affect satirical videos, news articles and news websites by elements of which the state has a less than favourable view of.

The digital rights organisation Bytes for All had taken the government to court over the blocking of YouTube. After 20 court hearings, a document of consensus was reached by several stakeholders including petitioner (Bytes for All), MoIT, PTA and technical experts from the IT and telecom industries, it was concluded that filtering the Internet was futile owing to technological reasons.

Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of the Lahore High Court observed that banning Youtube because of one undesirable video is like shutting down of an entire library because of an offensive book contained within it. The LHC though refrained from issuing an order, instead directing the litigants to approach the Supreme Court for an interpretation of the September 17, 2012 order issued by the apex court which instituted the blanket ban on YouTube.

However, the hurdles that Bytes of All members had to face during the litigation process offer a glimpse on how closely does the state wishes to keep its ‘weapon’ of censorship hidden away from the prying eyes of the very people it impacts.

An emailed response from Bytes for All detailed how baseless accusations were leveled against them and a defamation campaign was run against them by the government and pro-censorship lawyers.

“There were articles written in some pro-government publications in which Bytes for All was accused of being the agents of west and working against the national interest. We were labeled as ‘Followers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ during one of the hearing, which was amusing and sad at the same time.”

Dad questioned the legality of the Inter-Ministerial Committee. “This committee should be renamed as the ‘Mysterious committee’ which decides for 184.4 million of what to see on internet and what not. ”

She further complained how politicians, who championed freedom prior to being elected, performed near volte-face once acquiring office.

“[Minister for IT] Anusha Rehman was once a champion for online freedom before coming into the government. She had promised in her election campaign that unblocking YouTube will be the first thing she does once she assumes office. Two years on, there are no developments.”

The lack of accountability in this regard is a theme that has extended to the corridors of parliament. Syed Ali Raza Abidi, a Muttahida Qaumi Movement MNA and part of the National Assembly’s standing committee on information technology says the committee has met only four times in the past year.

“I have raised it [YouTube block] in supplementary questions at least four times since I have been an MNA. These supplementary’s were asked whenever there was a question about the IT ministry and its performance,” Abidi says, adding that in these meetings, the Minister of IT and Secretaries of the department have told parliamentarians that the matter is sub-judice and courts are the only authority to reverse the ban. Requests for a public hearing on the ban in the committee too have been ignored

Abidi adds that a joint resolution was submitted in the national assembly by Pakistan Peoples Party’s Shazia Marri and it had been supported by the MQM, but no action was taken on that either.

“The only reason the PML-N government is not interested in unbanning YouTube is because they fear backlash from religious groups which are primarily their support base in Pakistan.”

It is odd how in their annual list of achievements, Rehman lists the auction of 3/4G licenses. Yet, sites and services, which the public would use these technologies to access, continue to be blocked without a coherent reason or as much as a public announcement.

“Nothing should be blocked on internet. Let people decide what they want to see and what not. Government shouldn’t decide on our behalf,” says Dad.

For its part, Bytes for All will soon be submitting an application in the Supreme Court to seek clarification on its earlier order. “We believe that the intent of the apex court was not to have entire Youtube blocked in Pakistan. We hope for a positive outcome resulting in free and open Internet contributing towards national socio-economic development.”

YouTube ban gives rise to alternatives

While any one on the internet with moderate skills can find ways to mitigate the ban imposed by the government and access YouTube, it has not stopped the rise of alternative websites which offer similar content.

French company Dailymotion has risen to become the sixth most visited site in Pakistan, according to the ranking website Alexa. So much so, visitors from Pakistan contribute over 13% of the site’s traffic, more than its native France.

http://i1.tribune.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/dailymotion-visits.jpg

Monday’s incident, where Senator Rehman Malik and MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani were offloaded from a PIA flight, went viral after video clips recorded on cellphones were posted onto Dailymotion.

Local video sharing platform, Tune.pk, too has seen its fortunes rise in the vacuum created by YouTube’s forced absence. It is the 13th most visited site in Pakistan.

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Reader Comments (29)

  • Shobz
    Sep 18, 2014 - 3:11AM

    I find it strange that one video has resulted in a ban on YouTube. Why can’t people just ignore the video and not look for it? It is a pity that we can’t access YouTube. There is a lot of “blasphemous” material on the internet. This ban implies that people are not strong in their faith coz they can’t be trusted. As if we have nothing better to do but only search for blasphemous content online. It’s about time they unblock YouTube.

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  • sadia
    Sep 18, 2014 - 4:32AM

    People can still access YouTube in Pakistan using back door proxy servers. Who the author of this article kidding? This is Pakistan, everything is open n possible here.

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  • Wollstonecraft
    Sep 18, 2014 - 4:32AM

    The amount of information, knowledge, education and entertainment that can be viewed through this media is phenomenal. The western nations need to do nothing to keep people in countries like Pakistan in the dark, the national government does the job for them free of charge and expeditiously.

    So far as “blasphemous” contents are concerned, you really should have enough brains to decide whether or not to click. Surely people can’t be that stupid that they would go out of their way, click on something that is offensive to them. Why?

    I hope it stays blocked forever!

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  • Moiz Omar
    Sep 18, 2014 - 5:03AM

    YouTube should be unblocked already.Recommend

  • Musawer
    Sep 18, 2014 - 6:05AM

    Are you really that naïve or your just playing dumb?
    Its 2014 mate, whoever wants to do whatever, they eventually do,
    One way or the other,
    If your life is so incomplete without a mere website,
    Leme spell it for you,
    P.R.O.X.Y

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  • bahaha
    Sep 18, 2014 - 6:17AM

    Unfettered access is now mandatory and governance of internet should perhaps become a UN affair instead of zardari and Saudi type affair that it is now. These demigogs ( modern day phearos) have caused unimaginable loss to the learning mind. It is like modern day jagirdars in Sindh and little wonder that our young people are willing to listen to the aimless babbling of people like Qadri and Imran.Recommend

  • lalai
    Sep 18, 2014 - 6:41AM

    Looks like the Youtube lovers have to stage another Dharna to reopen it. The successive governments have proved that they will act only when pushed to the limit.

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  • SKChadha
    Sep 18, 2014 - 6:45AM

    YouTube is not meant for Pak citizenry. They should not watch the evil … :-)

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  • ampersand
    Sep 18, 2014 - 7:54AM

    Might explains why Daily Motion has improved so much.

    If one site is down, others will replace it.

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  • numbersnumbers
    Sep 18, 2014 - 8:20AM

    @SKChadha:
    But then WHY is it OK for Saudi Arabia to watch it??

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  • Sun Tzu
    Sep 18, 2014 - 8:23AM

    You have ISPR press releases – why do you need Youtube, or indeed, the internet?!

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  • Khan
    Sep 18, 2014 - 8:54AM

    I wish Tahirul Qadri/ Imran Khan had included opening of youtube in there long lists of demands !!!

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  • Haider
    Sep 18, 2014 - 9:45AM

    No Religious Intolerance but respect and love for our religion is our first preference.So if any one says against our religion we have to be against it…
    While YouTube is accessed every where in Pakistan via proxy

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  • Sep 18, 2014 - 9:53AM

    YouTube works perfectly on Android (Jelly Bean here) with latest YouTube updates. No proxies needed.

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  • Imran
    Sep 18, 2014 - 9:54AM

    what about the solution that China found about youtube?

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  • pakistani
    Sep 18, 2014 - 12:36PM

    People are dying due to flooding,,, Imran khan and Qadri has vowed to destroy economy of Pakistan, N we are discussing this nonsense issue….!! Where we live, flood might not access but earth quake can, May God put us in the same trouble then will see who discusses this matter…!!

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  • jhadist
    Sep 18, 2014 - 12:48PM

    Govt is not in position to face reaction of groups like lashkaray Jhangvi, Sipa sahaba…etc.

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  • Last Word
    Sep 18, 2014 - 1:07PM

    Pakistanis should get used to this small ban as many more bans such as movies, sports, education of girls, burqas etc are in offing when Sharia is imposed in the near future on the whole country.

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  • Pakistani
    Sep 18, 2014 - 1:37PM

    @Sun Tzu:
    Please don’t give up your day job!!

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  • Vir
    Sep 18, 2014 - 1:46PM

    These activists are financed by Google. It’s not unheard of for lobbyists and activists to be financed by foreigners. If they were truly independent they would protest against the blocking of pastebin.com as well. That is a text sharing website used mostly by programmers. I don’t know why it has been blocked. Of course the vast majority of Pakistanis don’t care about sites like these. They find the written word difficult to digest. Cat videos, OTOH, are much more important.

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  • Pakistani
    Sep 18, 2014 - 1:47PM

    Typical PMLN approach; run away from responsibility and decision making.Recommend

  • S K Chadha
    Sep 18, 2014 - 2:05PM

    @numbersnumbers: Saudi Arabia is neither Democracy nor Dictatorship … :-)

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  • @Imran
    Sep 18, 2014 - 2:54PM

    @Imran China has youku.com which is equivalent of youtube. It is very fast in China but not for outside world.

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  • Tariq Ghouri
    Sep 18, 2014 - 3:19PM

    we can not build software in 2 years, good keep it up

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  • rohit950723
    Sep 18, 2014 - 3:23PM

    Why electricity or internet was not banned in this case..

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  • Rahul
    Sep 18, 2014 - 5:44PM

    67 years later, no light at the end of the tunnel for Pakistan!

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  • TUNG
    Sep 18, 2014 - 10:26PM

    i have been viewing this website and that balsphemous video ever since it was put online! try to stop me if you can! what a bunch of losers these religious goons are!

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  • casanova
    Sep 19, 2014 - 9:53AM

    I agree

    this is just stupid

    view it or not its one’s decision

    those who feel utube is evil dont see it why block it for others

    why rule our lives ???

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  • anaya
    Nov 20, 2014 - 4:23PM

    There was a time when Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was declared a Kafir because he wanted to teach English (Farangi Taaleem) in his college. Today children of same Mullah’s are communicating with others in English (The Evil language).

    We should learn from our history and take responsibility. If Youtube should remain banned, the internet should be banned too because its more evil than Youtube itself. I have seen many bright Pakistani individuals who are graphic designers, web designers, software professionals, photographers etc who took help from Youtube only in perusing their career and earning good internationally. Not to mention that thousands of Pakistani’s are actually earning money from Youtube.

    But talking sense in Pakistan is as useless as a fifth wheel. I think few 100 years will clear the confusion.

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