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Much ado about nothing

August 23, 2013
- File Photo
- File Photo
- File Photo
- File Photo

KARACHI: The question on whether the ban on YouTube in Pakistan would soon be lifted still beggars a clear response from the government. The ban was brought in effect in September 2012 following the circulation of Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islam film, on the website. And although the possibility that the website may again be available to internet users in Pakistan has been floating for the past several weeks, a definitive conclusion on the matter still does not seem to be around the corner.

What is however clear, following a recent press briefing by Minister of State for Information Technology (IT) Anusha Rehman, is that the fate of the website lies in the hands of an inter-ministerial committee, which would be presented with proposals for dealing with YouTube and the objectionable content hosted on it. The committee, which meets when a need arises, has representation from the ministries of interior, information, and religious affairs. Members from the cabinet division, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) are also included in it.

Formed in 2006, the committee has the mandate to define anti-state, blasphemous and pornographic content on internet and issue directives to the PTA to block access to such information. However, research shows that YouTube is accessed more for educational purposes than any other. During a court hearing in August this year, Farieha Aziz, a director at Bolo Bhi, a non-profit group working for internet freedom and government transparency, said Islamic content on YouTube received a total of 1,199,368,564 views whereas Innocence of Muslims received only 0.164 per cent of the views.

Bolo Bhi also did a survey from July 26 to July 31 this year on internet usage in Pakistan — 82.8 per cent of the respondents said they used the internet for educational purposes, while 26.4 per cent said they used it to access religious content.

According to one report on the press briefing Thursday, Ms Rehman had said that so far, the IT Ministry had developed the capacity of blocking 4,000 URLs with the objectionable content with the help of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL). Whereas, another report quoted her as saying that the PTA had reported that the film was spread across eight million URLs and that it lacked capacity to block more than 500,000.

Furthermore, a report said that the ministry has given three days to the PTA to come up with a solution for the YouTube problem.

Another report quoted Ms Rehman as saying that the installation of the system required to deal with the objectionable content while still being able to access YouTube would be completed by September 15 and would cost around Rs2,700 million.

However, as of now, there is still no definitive deadline for the YouTube ban being lifted.

Bolo Bhi has been actively advocating against the ban of YouTube ever since it was implemented in September 2012. The organization has time and again highlighted the dangers associated with content filtering.

With regards to PTA’s statement about filtering HTTPS urls, the organization pointed out how such traffic cannot be blocked unless a session is interrupted and unencrypted. In order to do so, someone in the middle must break into the communication and alter it – usually at the ISP level.

This is often done by masquerading as the intended recipient.

As Bolo Bhi pointed out, this is a threat; as such measures cannot only be used for HTTPS links but also for ebanking services and other business sectors. Tampering with such systems will have a detrimental effect on the banking and industrial sectors of Pakistan.

When talking with this scribe another director at Bolo Bhi, Sana Saleem, expressed surprise at the Ministry’s claim of having successfully tested such a filtering system with PTCL’s assistance, when previously PTA had given in writing that no such system exists that can filter through HTTPS links.

Last year, a tender proposing such a filtering system had been given; which was vehemently opposed by Bushra Gohar, Senior VP of Awami National Party (ANP).

After the dangers of the system had been pointed out by PTA, State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) had pushed back the proposal, saying it threatened the security of the banking sector.

Sana Saleem, Director at Bolo Bhi, said in an interview with this reporter regarding the YouTube ban, “access filtered is access denied. The YouTube ban is in direct violation of our constitutional rights”.

No matter how frantic the activities of the IT ministry, PTA and other bodies regarding this particular ban, it seems that the only conclusion evident so far is that their motto seems to be look busy, do nothing.