WHAT began as an outrageous situation and was expected to be resolved promptly is starting to feel uncomfortably as though it might become a permanent bar on citizens’ rights to access the internet — and that too because of governmental apathy. In September, cowed by the havoc wreaked in Islamabad by rioters protesting against the availability on YouTube of an offensive film trailer, the government cut off total access to the site. The indignant citizenry required an answer, so we were told that Google, the giant that owns and operates YouTube, had been approached with a request that the offensive content be taken down, but had refused. Since Pakistan was not in a position to manually restrict access to offensive sites, the government explained it had no choice other than to entirely restrict access to YouTube. It was meanwhile generally known that some other countries, including Egypt and India, had managed to have access to the offensive content selectively curtailed, leaving the rest of YouTube open.
Four months later, it has become clear that as is often the case, at fault is not the other party but the government of Pakistan. As reported by this newspaper yesterday, what this country does not have in place is a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the US under which, amongst other matters, an internet company could be directed to comply with the laws of another country. Had this paperwork been in order, for Pakistanis, too, access to only the objectionable content could have been restricted. Worse, there seems to be hardly any concern or movement on part of the relevant administrative quarters to set into motion the process of signing a MLAT with the US — even though, according to the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan, the treaty could be negotiated and signed within a couple of months if the Ministry of Information Technology pursued the matter.
The film and the offence it caused have long since faded from public consciousness but the lack of access to a popular site used for dozens of different purposes is a daily — and unnecessary — inconvenience. More importantly, it is a bar on our civil liberties. The government needs to immediately do what is required to restore Pakistanis’ full access to the internet. Further, it must get its house in order and ensure that in all areas, the paperwork is ready and available. On Saturday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik promised once again that YouTube access would be restored within a week, after the installation of filtration software. We hope that this time he can make it happen, and permanently.