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Pakistan’s ban on YouTube has now entered its third month and is showing no signs of desisting. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked the website under orders from Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf “in order to ensure that Pakistan’s religious sentiments were not hurt.”

The PTA shut down YouTube on September 17, 2012, three days after nationwide riots began against an anti-Islam video on the website. The riots took 26 lives, injured over 200 people and caused 76 billion rupees worth of economic loss.

Here the Herald takes a look at the dilemma faced by YouTube: on the one hand, the government will not allow it to be resumed unless the contentious video is removed; on the other, Google (which owns YouTube) has stated that removing the video is against its policy.

First, there was only a trailer

It all began when a 14-minute trailer for an anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, was uploaded on YouTube in the first week of September; a few days later violent protests broke out across the Muslim world. In Libya, armed protesters stormed the American consulate in Benghazi and killed four members of staff, including the American ambassador. Google immediately blocked access to the video in Libya and neighbouring Egypt, which was also witnessing huge protests against the video.

As violence started erupting in Pakistan, the government wrote to Facebook and Google to remove the video from the Internet — or at least from Pakistani servers. Facebook complied within 24 hours; Google did not respond. This prompted the government to slap a blanket ban on YouTube.

Many believe that the government should have engaged better with Google on the issue. “The [YouTube] ban does not mean much to Google, but it affects Pakistani internet users very deeply so it is our [government’s] job to convince Google [to remove the video],” says Shahzad Ahmad, the head of Bytes for All, an organisation that monitors internet freedom.

Google does present an explanation for the selective blocking of the video, although it does not convince many. The company’s statement, issued on September 12, 2012 said, “the video … is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.” But then it added that the company has temporarily restricted access to the video in “Libya and Egypt … given the very difficult situation in both countries.”

Next came the puzzling backstories

The question, then, that many in Pakistan are asking is: why did the company not apply the same yardstick for Pakistan where protests, and resulting violence, were more deadly than in most other Muslim countries? “It boils down to no reason other than discrimination,” says a PTA official who does not wish to disclose his name. “Corporations, such as Google, only care about profits and since we accrue no profit to them, we mean nothing to them,” he adds.

Sources in the industry say that Google blocked the video in Libya and Egypt mainly in response to severe criticism from internet users in the country that is both its largest market and its base – the US – over the killing of the American officials. The company acknowledged that banning the video was an “extraordinary” step and in fact at the Seventh Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan its officials admitted that allowing access to the video in the politically charged Middle Eastern countries was a mistake.

What becomes confounded in such accusations and clarifications is whether it is legally possible to block a video on YouTube in Pakistan. Google can only take Pakistan’s request for blocking the video into consideration, if the country has a localised version of YouTube. Since both India and Indonesia have a local YouTube version, they were able to make the video inaccessible quickly. The reason is that a localised YouTube follows local web content laws applicable to a specific country whereas the global version follows global guidelines as practised by Google.

The company, however, has clearly failed to implement its guidelines across the board in this case. Internet users in Libya, Egypt and Pakistan all use a non-localised, global version of YouTube. Why did Google block the video in the other two countries but not in Pakistan? “If Google could break its rules for Libya and Egypt then why can’t [those] rules be bent for us?” asks an official at the Federal Ministry of Information Technology in Islamabad who does not want to be named.

A web of laws

This raises another question: why has Pakistan failed to get a localised version of YouTube, especially when anti-Islam web content has been such a recurring issue in the country since 2006?

Some industry insiders suggest that the reason behind Google’s reluctance in localising YouTube in Pakistan is political instability. “For Google, Pakistan is another Afghanistan,” says a South Asia representative of the company who prefers not to disclose his name.

When Eric Schmidt, president of Google, visited Pakistan earlier this year, he was told that Pakistan can offer the company a huge avenue for investment. The government was not off the mark in this assessment as the country has 23 million Internet users, according to the PTA. As a follow-up to his visit, a 10-person Google delegation came to Pakistan to assess the situation in September. “I could see that they were finally viewing Pakistan as a viable investment opportunity,” says Badar Khushnood, Google’s sole consultant for Pakistan. The protests against the video erupted while the delegation was still in Pakistan. “They witnessed the violence with their own eyes. I don’t think they will be back for a while,” he adds.

On the other hand, digital media agencies such as Digitz and media-buying houses such as Starcom explain that the real reason behind Google’s unwillingness to localise in the country is the fact that Pakistan’s digital media market is simply not large enough. According to Babar Anis, a former deputy group head at Starcom, Pakistan’s total advertising industry is worth 500 million US dollars but digital advertising is worth only 10 million US dollars. “If the digital advertising market is so small, why should Google bother investing in us?” he asks.

Zeeshan Sharfi, the chief executive officer of Digitz, also puts the size of the digital component at only one to two per cent of the total advertising market. This is further split between Facebook, Yahoo, Hotmail and Google, he says. In turn, he adds, “YouTube receives about half of what Google gets.”

The Middle Eastern countries, in contrast, have huge digital advertisement markets. “It is 10-15 per cent [of their media industry],” says Anis. So even though they are ‘politically instable’, YouTube and Google have to pander to the diktats of the market there.

Furthermore, Pakistan also needs to streamline its myriad laws and regulations governing web content and online technologies. As things stand today, the country does not have a coherent set of cyber laws. At one end of the spectrum, there is no law covering cyber crime after the Pakistan Electronic Criminal Ordinance lapsed more than a year ago. But, on the other, there are laws which are contradictory and confusing — while one of them guarantees freedom of speech, another puts severe restrictions on it and both can be applicable to web content. Similarly, some relevant laws exist but they never get implemented. There is, for instance, a law to protect intellectual property rights but its enforcement mechanism is weak to the extent of being non-existent.

In the absence of unambiguous and enforceable cyber laws, the PTA employs Article 19 of the Constitution to decide what to ban. “There is no law for content regulation — all we know is that no video or website which is against the ‘glory of Islam’ should be allowed,” says an official at the PTA who did not prefer to disclose his name. But what exactly constitutes “glory of Islam” remains undefined.

The Ministry of Information Technology, on the other hand, does feel there is no need to explain such generic terms as “glory of Islam”. “It is quite clear what is blasphemous and what is not,” says Amir Tariq Zaman Khan, the acting secretary of the ministry and the head of the inter-ministerial committee responsible for monitoring web content.

But this inter-departmental wrangling over definitions – or lack thereof – can easily scupper the chances of technology companies allowing themselves to come under Pakistani laws. “How can we expect YouTube to localise itself [in such a situation],” says Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights, an organisation which promotes internet freedom.

Myriam Boublil, head of communications and public affairs for Google Southeast Asia, clearly supports this point of view. In an email response to the Herald’s queries, she says that offering local versions of YouTube takes time because “we research laws and build relationships with local content creators. Regulatory mechanisms are another consideration. Eventually, we hope to be localised wherever regulation permits,” she adds.

There were some losers

As the case stands, with Pakistan being a miniscule Internet advertising market, Google does not lose enough money from the blockade to start worrying about it. “Google does not lose out when [Pakistan] bans one of its websites [such as YouTube],” says Ahmad. “It is the country itself which will suffer,” he says.

Google refuses to comment on the financial aspect, making it impossible to assess whether or not it is suffering because of the ban. But a host of YouTube-dependent users are losing out — niche-music bands such as Poor Rich Boy who depended on YouTube to share their songs and videos; students from Virtual University of Pakistan who used the website to watch online lectures; news websites such as Dawn.com that used YouTube to upload and share their documentaries. Regular internet users also suffer as they are unable to watch their favourite religious, political and entertainment programmes.

An advocacy poster by Bytes For All for the restoration of YouTube. Courtesy Shahzad Ahmad

And an obvious villain

Banning YouTube, however, could well be the symptom of the illness called social, political and religious censorship which manifests itself in many ways. “Already there are scores of Baloch and Sindhi nationalist websites which have been blocked under government orders,” says Dad. With the election right around the corner, the government may be tempted to ban more websites and may be using the anti-Islam video as an excuse to do just that, she says.

Ahmad also agrees. “I feel the ban on YouTube is just a taste of what we are about to experience nearer to the upcoming election when the government will crack down on social media,” he says.

When PTA officials say they are trying to “find a permanent technical solution” to block “blasphemous and indecent videos” activists such as Dad and Ahmad are given cause for greater worry. The authority, under orders from the Ministry of Information Technology, is developing software to monitor the uploading of content on social media forums and filter anti-Islamic content. “This is pretty much the same software as used in Iran or China,” explains a PTA official.

As in the case for these two countries, this software may also be used for filtering political content. Kamran Ali, member legal of the Ministry of Information Technology, agrees that content-filtering software is vulnerable to abuse. “Imagine, if there is an election and the ruling party [through such software] clamps down on the opposition in the virtual world ,” he thinks out aloud.

Whether such fears become a reality or not, there is no will at the official level to create a financially conducive and legally clear atmosphere for digital media. The government certainly has no incentive to allow a greater institutionalisation of web content regulation and facilitate the growth of digital media market. And without these two factors Google and YouTube will certainly feel no need to cater to the sensibilities and sensitivities of Pakistanis.

Protests in Pakistan over the anti-Islam film lasted through much of September 2012

No end in sight

When Pakistan blocked YouTube in 2008 and 2010 over similar anti-Islam videos, Google eventually threw in the towel and removed the videos. This time round, it seems the company does not have the inclination to budge, having already turned down an unprecedented request from the White House to remove the video. Perhaps this is because the company does not want to send the signal that violent objections over any real or perceived insult to any group of people can force the removal of the content, thereby compromising the freedom of speech which is at the core of phenomenal growth enjoyed by websites such as YouTube.

But the government, too, seems to be in a bind. It has to block an entire website to deny access to one single video. “Our predicament is easy to understand, we cannot allow the website to be accessed if the blasphemous video is not going to be removed and we do not have the expertise to solely remove one video,” explains Ali.

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