In 2010, Pakistan made headlines around the world because of its decision to block a number of popular websites including Facebook and YouTube. The reason for the sudden ban was a worldwide ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’, which was instigated by the cartoonist Molly Norris from Seattle. She promoted the idea (on Facebook) that if lots of artists drew Mohammed, then the violent threats being aimed at Trey Parker and Matt Stone for their portrayal of Mohammed in South Park would be shown to be misguided. On that occasion the website censorship was short lived, with the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) deciding just seven days later, on May 27, to lift the ban (because the websites had agreed to take down the offending content).
Fast forward to 2012, when a US made cartoon entitled the Innocence of Muslims once more inspired the PTA to block YouTube – due to its refusal to remove the offensive video – which was causing outrage throughout the middle east thanks to its caricature portrayal of the prophet Mohammed. On this occasion, however, because no agreement could be reached between YouTube and the Pakistani government (about how to deal with future content problems), the ban remained. YouTube had reached an impasse, did it back down to Pakistan’s demands and block anything and everything that the PTA wanted? Or did it just allow a total service blackout?
For the next three years not much changed, and unluckily for the people of Pakistan YouTube remained amongst the many thousands of websites that the PTA blocks due to content that it deems to be too offensive to be seen. That is, until this week. Now, Pakistan is once more being offered a YouTube service, because the Google-owned video sharing website has apparently backed down to the PTA’s demands and given the nation its own censorship-optimised version of the popular website,
‘On the recommendation of PTA, the government of Pakistan has allowed access to the recently launched country version of YouTube for internet users in Pakistan’, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom said in a statement.
The Pakistani YouTube has its own domain name: YouTube.com.pk. and it exists under the agreement that YouTube will block blasphemous content that it is asked to by the Islamabad government. So far it is too early to tell what will be missing and what will not, one thing that is definitely not included, however, is the video that sparked the three-year ban back in 2012 – Innocence of Muslims.
So what else can we expect the PTA to find ‘objectionable’? While material that is thought to be blasphemous to their religion can be considered reasonably offensive to local sensitivities, there is growing concern that Islamabad will not stop at that material and begin to censor political dissenters too. As of yet it is unclear whether that concern is valid, especially because so far videos by anti-regime protagonists such as the Pakistani band Beygairat Brigade remain uncensored. That rock band has so far produced three songs that are highly critical of Pakistan’s military and government, and if the PTA was planning on censoring political dissenters Beygairat Brigade would likely be high on the list of videos to be blocked. Only time will tell.
The feeling on the ground, however, is that the lifting of the ban cannot solely be because Innocence of Muslims is gone. In fact, many people do not even believe that it was just that animation that caused the ban – and according to them – there is evidence that something bigger was at play.
Farieha Aziz (the founder of the digital rights group Bolo Bhi), for example, is convinced that there is more to the ban than meets the eye. Back in 2012, Aziz was working as a journalist covering the Innocence of Muslims story and the events surrounding it – and she remembers things occurring differently to the commonly told narrative of events. According to Aziz, the YouTube ban was actually enforced days before the violent, large-scale protests, broke out around the Muslim nation in response to the blasphemous cartoon,
‘This would mean that the Pakistani authorities were aiming for something more than just that,’ comments Aziz.
Aziz describes a local rhetoric that involved both sides of Parliament agreeing that a lift on the YouTube ban was preferable. Recommendations that were completely ignored in favour of the longstanding prohibition: enforced by the Ministry of IT (an inter-ministerial committee with no real constitutional status – and yet with the power to overrule the nation’s genuine democracy). ‘Instead, [the IT ministry] adamantly pursued the localisation of YouTube. Anything short of controlling this medium was just not a palatable solution for it,’ says Aziz.
With this in mind, there is a concern in Pakistan over exactly who will be making the takedown requests. Will it be the IT Ministry mentioned above, which appears to exist outside of the nation’s proper democratic processes?
Another worry for digital rights activists, is Google’s lack of transparency on the deal: Why has it suddenly agreed to do what Islamabad wants? What are the details of the agreement that has been made behind closed doors, and how will it affect what people get to see on the local version of YouTube?
Google claims that Pakistani authorities cannot directly filter content, and that it is YouTube that remains in control of what is ultimately taken down. With the memory of three years of darkness firmly emblazoned on people’s minds, however, the consensus is that something must have been agreed for YouTube to suddenly have its own localised version in Pakistan. Farhan Hussain of digital rights group, Bytes for All, is sure that there is more to the agreement than is being publicly announced,
‘Google has not offered any details of the agreement with Islamabad, but in private discussions they have indicated that as and when Pakistan requests for the blocking of certain content, Google will remove it after vetting the request in accordance with international standards.’
A statement from Google seeks to legitimise the takedown process involved in Pakistan’s new youtube service. ‘We have clear community guidelines, and when videos violate those rules, we remove them. In addition, where we have launched YouTube locally and we are notified that a video is illegal in that country, we may restrict access to it after a thorough review,’ it says.
Hussain, however, remains unhappy with the lack of transparency involved in the takedown process – yes it seems fair that international human rights be taken into account – but why shouldn’t the proper, national, democratic institutions, be at the forefront of the censorship process? If it is all happening in a correct, unbiased, and non-politically motivated way?
‘The problem is, we don’t know what their vetting process is, and what those international standards are. Google’s annual transparency reports only provide statistics – such as how many requests for a ban were made by a country, and how many of them were accepted. But we would like to know the details of those requests.’ comments Hussain.
Whether Pakistan will be asking Google to suddenly ban content left, right, and center remains to be seen. The evidence would appear to show that Google plans to work with the approval of international human rights laws (as it does in other localised Youtube versions such as Nepal and Sri Lanka). Whether this will be enough for Islamabad is still not clear, because despite Google’s creation of the new localised PK Youtube – for now Youtube remains officially blocked in the country. ‘YouTube is still banned in the country… It will take some time before it is officially announced that YouTube is accessible again,’ said an official PTA representative last week.
With such confusion surrounding the new PK Youtube, even if the ban is officially lifted, one is left wondering how long it will be before something that Google does not feel it can acceptably sensor is cause for Pakistan to once more block Youtube. One thing is for certain, in Pakistan blasphemy (pornography for example) is seriously offensive – and if Youtube is ever going to be allowed to exist there again – it would appear that Google is going to have to play ball.
Consider, for example, the Seattle artist who caused the Youtube and Facebook ban back in 2010 – Norris is still being advised to remain in hiding by the FBI – for fear that she could suffer a grim end at the hands of radical Islamic terrorist if her location is disclosed. Although it is completely wrong that anybody should have to fear for their lives in the West for making a cartoon (Charlie Hebdo comes to mind), with such strong feelings towards blasphemy in Pakistan (and the rest of the Middle East), one might be inclined to agree that it is in everybody’s best interest for a certain amount of censorship to be acceptable within the nation. After all, as long as Pakistan’s authorities are asking to not be shown things that they genuinely do not want to see (as a nation) – and not simply blocking everything that is anti-regime – then it would appear that there is little to object to.