Not for YouTube
By: Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
It has been over a month since the popular video-sharing website, YouTube, was blocked in Pakistan (on Sept 17) on the orders of the prime minister of Pakistan. The current status is that the controversial video, which was the cause of this ban and the civil unrest in the country, is still there on YouTube and the parties — the Pakistan government and the Google — are far from resolving the dispute.
The stalemate exists in Pakistan, while in other countries such as Egypt, India, Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia the same video has been removed from the website. The question that comes to one’s mind is: why cannot the website do the same in Pakistan where people are emotionally more charged and risks of violence are higher than anywhere else?
Are the company’s stakes not as high in Pakistan as they are in the above-mentioned countries or is it simply a matter of jurisdiction? And are the allegations true that Google which owns YouTube does not pay any taxes to the Pakistan government despite making millions in advertising revenues in the country.
The country consultant of Google in Pakistan was not accessible as he is apparently keeping a low profile and avoiding interaction with media after the YouTube episode. The only reply that came for his side was an email saying he was abroad and had limited access to internet.
However, a source who has worked closely with Google in Pakistan and even booked ads for the search engine, tells TNS they do not book any ads for YouTube as it is not registered in Pakistan. The source, which does not want to be disclosed, adds Google is registered in Pakistan and it does earn advertising revenues here but it is not binding on it to pay taxes to the government as per rules of business done over internet.
The source asserts as the payments for ads are made through credit cards, the responsibility lies with the clients to disclose the transaction details to the home governments.
The stakes, the source discloses, are definitely high keeping in view the internet usage trends and the increasing number of users in the country. It is estimated, there are 22 million internet users in Pakistan.
In the words of Jana Levene, Google’s Head of Emerging Market Development, Southeast Asia, who visited Pakistan last month: “Twenty-two million internet users is a huge number. It’s more than Australia’s whole population. That’s why we are here”. Out of these, there are seven million Facebook users, one million twitter users and 1.2 million LinkedIn users.
Mac Warburton, another member of the team, presented a breakup of the approximately 8 million queries which are searched on daily basis on Google Pakistan search engine (www.google.com.pk) by Pakistanis. Twenty-five per cent of these searches come from mobile phone users who want to know about calling and SMS packages, prices of handsets etc.
Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director Bytes for All (B4A), a rights organisation with a focus on information and communication technologies, told TNS YouTube’s business model revolves around advertising. “The more the users view a video, the more an advertisement shall be seen.”
Advertisements, he said, come in several forms including side ads, promoted videos and video ads playing before the actual video starts. The pricing for ads varies as videos belonging to channels with more subscribers are expected to be more expensive. YouTube also live streams popular events such as presidential debates and sports matches.
He suggested the best way to handle this situation currently for individuals and activist organisations is to continue their activism and campaigning by protesting and challenging the government’s decision and offering reason and other less harmful alternatives as compared to blanket bans.
On another note, while B4A is completely against blanket bans and censorship of information and expression, in a compromising situation, the best alternative would be to have official representation of YouTube in Pakistan so the government can request for specific videos to be removed as a country specific exception, he added.
Ahmad is not against freedom of expression but he believes cultural sensitivities are also a reality. “Sharing of a video of girls dancing in a pub in the West may be a totally harmless act. But sharing a clip of Pakistani girls singing at a family function in Kohistan can bring death sentence for them.”
According to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) sources, the organisation is in talk with Google to register YouTube in Pakistan the way it is in Turkey. Right now Google wants to operate in Pakistan through regional offices, such as in Singapore, to avoid various kinds of legal obligations.
Turkey has succeeded in making YouTube to reside in Turkey, operate under com.tr domain and abide by the country’s laws. The decision comes after the order of a Turkish court which asked authorities to block access to the objectionable video last month.
In fact, Turkey has been facing similar situations for long. In May 2008, the Turkish government blocked access to YouTube for 30 months after users posted videos about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk which the government found insulting.
Fouad Bajwa, an IT professional, internet rights researcher and advisor to multilateral settings on issues related to Internet Public Policy and Internet Governance, said most of the internet giants and corporations base their business around offering their service as ‘freemium’, gradually increasing unique traffic and then encouraging website visitors to join as subscribers.
This further moves towards lead generation, affiliate marketing, some form of royalties etc. He believed Google primarily makes money from YouTube through demographically targeted advertising, customised to device type and the region the website traffic is coming from.
Similarly, he said if you upload a video on YouTube without violating any audio, video or patents, you get a share of the advertisement revenue on the basis of the number of times your video was viewed. Viral videos like that of Ali Gul Peer’s song “Waderay Ka Beta” or “Howzat” may be one of the few examples in Pakistan that actually make money, Bajwa added.
He suggested that foreign commercial information intermediaries should be regulated and directed by the government of Pakistan to open up their offices in Pakistan, place their staff on the ground here and register their presence with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) so that they abide by local laws and are also accountable.
If this happens, YouTube will not be able to simply state what it did in this film’s case. It stated, “This video — which is widely available on the web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access there.”