Why was the Google chairman in Pakistan?
By Farooq Tirmizi
“Eric is now playing the role of an internet evangelist, meeting with heads of state to see how the internet can help society in those countries,” says a source at Google. PHOTO: AFP
KARACHI: If the Google chairman’s quick, unannounced visit to Pakistan has anyone optimistic about Google investing in Pakistan; they should not get their hopes up. Eric Schmidt was here for nothing of the sort.
By most accounts, the visit was a brief one and kept secret for at least a day. Schmidt was in Pakistan on Thursday and met with the former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Islamabad, but the official press release was not issued by the prime minister’s office until Friday, and even that only included what Gilani asked Schmidt, not what the Google chairman himself said.
Google itself is remaining tight-lipped. A spokesperson for the California-based technology giant said only that “a team from Google is meeting with public and private sector leaders in Pakistan, as we do regularly, to better understand how local businesses and entrepreneurs are using technology.” Note how they refuse to even mention Schmidt by name, even though he was photographed with the then prime minister.
Sources inside Google say that there appears to be no communication about the visit internally within the company. One source at the company offered a clarifying comment: “Eric is now playing the role of an internet evangelist, meeting with heads of state to see how the internet can help society in those countries.”
For its part, the premier’s office has made no secret of what they wanted. Gilani, according to the government’s press release, is said to have recited a laundry list of items that Pakistan would like Google’s help on. And for good measure, the former prime minister threw in a request for Google to help finance a venture capital fund in the country.
It is unclear whether Schmidt brought up the subject of Google’s recent efforts to resist censorship on the internet. For example, on June 4 – the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China – Google warned users in that country when they typed searches related to that day that their search would likely be censored.
And the company has had its fair share of run-ins with the government of Pakistan. The Google Transparent Report, a project that reveals when Google receives requests to take down content from its websites, suggests that Pakistan has asked the company to remove content twice over the past six months. One request was for the removal of nine items from Blogger, Google’s popular blogging service. Google did not specify what the content was, but suggested that the request was complied with, at least in part.
However, the company was willing to state what the second request was. “We received a request from the Government of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology to remove six YouTube videos that satirised the Pakistan Army and senior politicians. We did not comply with this request,” says the transparency report.
Yet these requests seem child’s play compared to what happened in February 2008. In an attempt to block YouTube in Pakistan – ostensibly for hosting blasphemous content – the government’s over-zealous censors managed to block worldwide access to YouTube. A few bloggers later conjectured that the attempted blocking of YouTube was to prevent access to videos portraying election workers rigging results in Karachi, rather than for any blasphemous content.
In March, The New York Times (a partner publication of The Express Tribune) published a story about the government’s very open attempts to censor the internet in Pakistan. Some observers have suggested that Google may be trying to persuade Pakistan to not go down that path.
Danish Ejaz, an advertising executive in Karachi, said: “I think Google probably does not want Pakistan to become a second China, a country where many of their services are not available.”