Virtually blocked -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Virtually blocked

By: Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

After a prolonged spell of suppressed activity, social media websites in Pakistan suddenly became alive on Dec 3, with endless posts and tweets about the reopening of YouTube in the country. To many, this was nothing unexpected as the development had coincided with the tentative deadline given by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Chairman for the removal of the ban. He had told a private TV channel on November 15 that the Youtube ban may be lifted within 15 to 20 days.

Popular news channels also broke the news, mostly via tickers, but the furore was short-lived. Soon afterwards, the PTA sources denied issuing any such orders and held some service providers responsible for this discrepancy. Like always, they had no clue of when the ban was going to be lifted.

The situation to date is that there has not been any development since the imposition of a blanket ban on YouTube in Pakistan which came into effect on September 17. The PTA chairman once expressed the hope the website will be registered in Pakistan, but sources privy to its communication with Google — the owner of YouTube — say the internet giant has not given an encouraging response. Having a local presence in around 40 countries, with some small ones having an internet user base of only 3 million or so, apparently Google is not desirous of entertaining Pakistan’s request which has a base of 22 million internet users.

The question haunting many is whether the authorities have succeeded or not in getting the desired results with the help of this ban, and what will be the future course of action if Google does not register itself here.

Muhammad Nawaz, an IT geek, technologist and academic, says the government of Pakistan should have signed a contract with Google years ago as this was not the first time the website had been blocked in Pakistan. Had it been registered inside Pakistan, it would have been bound to abide by the local laws issued by the local authorities.

The ban, he says, is of no use as people have found ways to circumvent it. “Those who want to access YouTube are doing that with the help of certain softwares, proxy websites and Internet Protocol (IP) blockers”.

Nawaz says the objectionable trailer of the blasphemous movie that triggered the ban was blocked in India, Turkey etc. just because they had country versions of YouTube. “In Turkey, anyone who types is diverted to but this is not the case here. There the website has had to comply with the orders of Turkish courts and has often blocked content such as that related to Kemal Ataturk.”

On the other hand, a well-discussed Multi-Lateral Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between Google and Pakistan is pending for well above two years, mainly due to the lack of interest shown by the PTA and other related authorities. “What can we expect from the authority which cannot even block the websites like targetting its own sitting and outgoing bosses.”

Nawaz points out that a large number of people have been deprived of the opportunity to do educational research online, access entertainment-related content, benefit from religious content and health tips. To elaborate his point, he says, there are between 70,000 to 80,000 students enrolled with the Virtual University (VU) who access their lectures via YouTube. “Though there’s a compulsion on cable operators to air VU channels on their networks but hardly anyone does that. So YouTube is the only option left for them.”

There is another angle to the story which is apparently haunting the PTA. Fouad Bajwa, an internet rights activist and policy advocate based in Lahore, observes that in Pakistan the internet policy has always been based on public demand and defined by norms of public morality. “The PTA fears that its policy decision to open YouTube may affect public order as has happened in the form of protests leading to loss of property and lives in Pakistan”.

Based on his interactions with different stakeholders, Bajwa feels the government has been under pressure to open the website. “But the challenge on the other hand is that the Google is not listening to the government demands to remove or block the objectionable content. I’ve also heard that Badar Khushnood, the Google representative in Pakistan, has also failed to convince the Google to do something acceptable to the Pakistani authorities”.

So right now, the PTA is facing a challenge and has to decide whether it should open the website or not and, if yes, on what conditions. It is strongly believed among the internet community that the Google is sticking to its own vision of freedom of expression, something its representative expressed at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku recently.

Google representative Badar Khushnood was not willing to comment due to the sensitivity of the issue. It was also learnt he is avoiding media interaction since the day the Interior Minister Rahman Malik publicly warned of action against him if the Google refused to cooperate with Pakistan on terrorism-related issues.

Sources say the Google has expressed fears that local registration of YouTube will compromise the interests of the Pakistani public at the hands of the state. They add the PTA has offered to follow all the requirements for local registration, but Google is giving one excuse or the other every time. The internet giant believes the restoration of judiciary in Pakistan, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the uprising in Iran became successful only because the site was not subservient to local laws.

So, the option the PTA is working on is to set up a highly advanced content filtering system which will block the unwanted material and may also detect use of proxy servers, the sources say, adding “when will it be possible is a mystery.” This will be a tough task as an estimated 72 hours of video content is uploaded on Facebook every minute.

TNS forwarded a questionnaire to the PTA spokesperson Malahat Rab more than a week ago, but she has still not responded. All we have received is a statement forwarded on behalf of Sajjad Latif Awan, Director Enforcement, PTA Headquarters, and Islamabad. It says the PTA has not ordered anybody to open the access of YouTube in Pakistan and there are reports that some service providers and operators have facilitated that.

“The PTA has initiated inquiry to check which Service Providers and Operators have opened the access to YouTube and afterwards stern actions will be taken against those responsible,” it adds.

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