Pakistan's internet censorship “has no impact”

Published September 12, 2013
- File Photo
- File Photo

LAHORE: In a small Internet cafe, Abdullah gets round the censors with one click and logs onto YouTube, officially banned for a year and at the heart of Pakistan's cyberwar for control of the web.

On September 17, 2012 Islamabad blocked access to the popular video-sharing website after it aired a trailer for a low-budget American film deemed offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

Pakistan summoned the most senior diplomat of the United States present in the country to protest against “Innocence of Muslims”, demanding that the film be removed and severe action taken against its producers.

A year later, the film is barely mentioned but YouTube, whose parent company is US multinational Google Inc, is still banned in Pakistan, as it is in China and Iran.

Pakistan is no stranger to censorship. Foreign television programmes deemed offensive are blocked while scenes considered too daring are censored in films shown at cinemas.

But the YouTube ban is in name only.

Internet users like Abdullah Raheem, a university student in Pakistan's cultural capital Lahore, can easily access the site through a simple proxy or Virtual Private Network (VPN).

“Most people who go to school or university know how to access YouTube, but not the rest of the population,” says Abdullah.

Only 10 per cent of Pakistan's estimated 180 million people have access to the Internet, one of the lowest rates in the world.

“This ban has no impact,” Abdullah declares, who still feels guilty about logging onto YouTube. “As a Muslim, I'm ashamed... because 'Innocence of Muslims' defiled Islam.”

Pakistan blocked the site only after Google was unable to block access to the film because it has no antenna in the country.

Although Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt defended hosting the film, the company did have the technology to block access to it in countries such as Egypt, India and Saudi Arabia.

Aside from blocking the popular video-sharing website, the Pakistani government also ordered that websites be monitored for “anti-Islamic content”.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which specialises in Internet censorship, says Pakistan has used Canadian company Netsweeper to filter websites relating to sensitive religious topics and unreliable, independent media.

The researchers also say that pornographic content and political websites from Balochistan – Pakistan's southwestern province which has been gripped by separatist insurgency for the past few years – are among those blocked.

Shortly after former military ruler Pervez Musharraf was arrested in April, Pakistan shut down access to a satirical song posted on YouTube's rival, Vimeo that poked fun at the army.

Despite such measures, however, the song “Dhinak Dhinak”, performed by the Beygairat Brigade, which is Urdu for Shameless Brigade, quickly went viral as Pakistani Internet users went through proxy VPNs to watch the banned content.

“It is still creating waves. So I think they helped our popularity by banning that song,” said the Brigade's 29-year-old lead singer, Ali Aftab Saeed.

Saeed believes that the authorities are bent on a wider campaign of Internet censorship, not just restricting access to items considered blasphemous in the Muslim nation.

“We thought that they would try to ban just the link to that particular video ('Innocence of Muslims') but they instead banned the whole website (YouTube) and then they extended it to satire and people who discuss the role of military groups. So yes, it is a worrying situation,” he said.

Shahzad Ahmad, director of Internet rights campaign group, Bytes For All, believes that online censorship serves a wider political agenda than just shutting down blasphemous content.

“The government is trying to curtail, limit and curb citizen freedom of expression,” Ahmad declared.

He says citizens are waging a “cyberwar” against Pakistani institutions who are blocking and filtering Internet content.

“There is a very clear defiance from users, particularly from the youth on government filtering,” he added.

Bytes For All has gone to court in Lahore, demanding an end to “illegal and illegitimate” censorship of the Internet.

The fight is vital to stop the government developing tools of censorship that threaten “the security and private lives” of individuals, says Farieha Aziz, a director at the Bolo Bhi advocacy group that is closely following the case, which encompasses the YouTube ban.

Software surveillance FinFisher, developed by British company Gamma and able to access content on personal computers, has been detected recently on Pakistani servers.

Although it is unclear whether it has been deployed by Pakistan's own intelligence agencies or foreigners, the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal in the United States has greatly heightened suspicions.

In Pakistan, the cyber war has only just begun.

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