The blockage of the popular video-sharing website, YouTube, which was shut down in Pakistan on September 17, 2012, to prevent access to a blasphemous video continues. Video excerpts from the aforementioned movie sparked protests and violence across the Muslim world. During one of the spates of violence, the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed along with three of his staff in a deadly assault on the diplomat’s vehicle. The protests which erupted from Egypt reached Pakistan in a matter of few days. The violence seen in the country and elsewhere in the Muslim world over the blasphemous video led the Government of Pakistan to impose a complete ban on the video-sharing website. This followed a request to Google, YouTube’s parent company, to take down the video but it declined.
While the ban on YouTube is as effective as Mamnoon Hussain is as the president of Pakistan, you may blow your cool if you go through the events which have unfolded since the authorities in Pakistan slapped a ban on it. The prohibition was challenged in the courts and the government is seen going back and forth in its defence. The later, in fact, has been issuing sporadic half-promises of lifting the ban, while insisting that the ban will remain in place. Given such absurd tactics and delays on the part of the government it goes without saying that it has handled the issue in a manner that has only made a mockery of Pakistan. An estimated 15 to 20 million netizens in Pakistan have been deprived of direct access to YouTube. Accessing the site from Pakistan is no big deal thanks to the countless proxy servers helping its netizens view prohibited material on the web but the very fact that hundreds and thousands of netizens from Pakistan, most of them practicing Muslims, are increasingly turning to unlawful means to access YouTube, speaks volumes about the adequacy of the ban. This silent evasion of the ban by many Pakistanis shows that people consider it to be unjustified. However, accessing YouTube via proxy servers slows down the buffering speed and thus affects those users who have low bandwidth (mostly students) more than the users surfing the web with a faster connection. Our artistes, who used YouTube as an inexpensive and censor-free platform to launch their work e.g., Aaloo Anday, Waderay ka beta, are among the people who have really suffered at the hands of this ban.
The question is: what purpose has this two-year-old prohibition served apart from exposing the amount of inertia and lack of thinking that runs from top to bottom in the government-run institutions. What message has this ban delivered to cybercitizens in our country apart from teaching them how to use illegal means to access a website which is essentially a useful resource for hundreds and thousands of students, professionals and researchers? What has Pakistan gained in the two years since the ongoing ban on YouTube? While the world is moving ahead in terms of using the internet, we are only being plunged into a recess of the dark ages from where there is no way forward. The ban on YouTube is purely a naked power play by the authorities and is all about controlling the behaviour of millions of netizens in Pakistan and denying them censor free access to the internet.
A recent United Nations Human Rights Council report has examined the important question of whether internet access is a basic human right which enables individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression”. The report was released after the 17th United Nations session on Human Rights. In it, the United Nations emphasised the importance of broadband and internet access throughout the special rapporteur’s conclusions in the report. The report has also underlined that restricting internet access completely will always be a breach of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of expression.
Access to information is a right that cannot be denied. The Government of Pakistan has been wanting to place ‘filtration mechanisms’ to disallow the viewing of blasphemous videos on the video-sharing website in Pakistan and thus moving in a direction which has no end. The amount of efforts and money invested in devising such a programme is bound to head in only one direction: straight down. As an IT professional, I strongly believe that there is no technical solution that can be used to implement such a filter or block certain content on YouTube despite the ridiculous claims made by the information minister that such a software has been developed.
In the short-term, interstitial warnings — a warning page before a video plays — seems the only acceptable solution if the government is serious about lifting the ban. Google has offered interstitials to Pakistan just like they were offered to Bangladesh, which accepted the solution last year and ended the ban. As a matter of fact, the Government of Pakistan doesn’t even have to request Google for interstitials as YouTube has already applied this on every copy of the video hosted on YouTube and this can be extended to any future videos that result in a crisis of this sort. All the incumbent government needs to do is to restore access to the video-sharing website that has many advantages including being useful for educational, artistic and informative purposes. But for some unfathomable reason, YouTube still remains banned in the country whilst innumerable jihadist websites are easily accessible on the web.
Freedom of expression and information is already curtailed in a country like ours, where democracy is still at a rather nascent stage, and thus we need to resist any attempt to thwart it further. It is imperative to fight against internet censorship in general and the ban imposed on YouTube in particular. Such bans must be seen as a threat to clamp down on civil liberties. We need to strongly resist such tactics aiming to plunge us in a dark era where a centralised authority is able to control our behaviours and all access to information. Instead of concentrating energies on vain attempts, such as deciding what content is permissible for us to watch on YouTube, the government needs to respond to the will of the people and lift the ban from the website.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2014.