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YouTube ban: Running out of excuses

Updated March 01, 2014

One fine evening in September 2012, a law abiding, zealous and concerned countryman made a phone call to the Prime Minister’s office “Raja sahab, have you read the news? The Libyans have killed the US ambassador and the situation is out of control. I can not believe it, it’s incomprehensible. We must fix this at once, it’s important that we do so now”.

Shortly after, then Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf did what duty demanded of him, he passed an executive order to ban access to YouTube. It made absolute sense, but that wasn’t enough, duty demanded that the state go one step ahead – not to be competitive with Libya or Egypt – and sanction a day for “showing love to the Prophet”. And so, passionate lovers thronged the streets of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad and showered their affection by pelting stones, setting ablaze a few buildings and a bunch of cars; yes, passion can be ruthless.

After the ban in Pakistan was imposed, Afghanistan and Bangladesh followed lead. Both have since revoked the ban, to be clear Pakistan remains the only country in the world where YouTube is still blocked in reaction to the infamous video.

Although, there was a moment of clarity in December 2012 when the ban was revoked, but that quite literally lasted for two hours only. Letters, features, reports, articles and even court summons have gone unnoticed by the now Minister of State for Information Technology, Anusha Rehman Khan. Where Pakistan People’s Party that takes great pride in it’s liberal and democratic values initiated the ban, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) despite it’s love for economy, has paid no heed to the plight of artists, entrepreneurs, academics and businesses.

In countries where a local version of YouTube existed – an official legal presence of the company – the option to remove the video from their jurisdiction seemed an easy option to satisfy rioters and angry citizens. The method is simple, in areas where YouTube has a local presence a request can be sent by authorities to take down certain content citing a law and/or a court order. However, a quick look at the Google Transparency Report reveals that only a small portion of such takedown requests are complied with. In Pakistan’s case, however, Google does not have a local presence and therefore doesn’t abide by the local laws. [See Google’s response to localisation and content removal in Pakistan’s case].

In countries like Bangladesh, that faced a similar situation like Pakistan, there is an option of placing an ‘interstitial’ – a warning screen – before the content, because on the internet, unlike television, access to content is mostly voluntary. Unless a user switches on their computer, connects it to the internet and proactively looks for the content, there’s a very slim chance they would be able to stumble upon it. So a warning screen before an offensive video seemed a sensible option.

But of course, we didn't buy that, we want the video to be removed in its entirety, which begs the question even if it is removed from access in Pakistan, does it change the fact that it will still be accessible? If its still accessible elsewhere, how does that change anything? And even if it is removed from around the world, how does it prevent others from pulling off similar stunts? If there was ever a way to demonstrate a quick fire way to deprive a country of 180 million from access to information, we made it pretty darn easy.

This now brings me to the recent hoopla, a district court in San Francisco has directed Google to remove the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video on copyright grounds based on a plea made by actress Cindy Lee Garcia. The claims are similar to the ones that were reported when the video was released, that the actress was ‘duped’ into appearing in the video, was unaware of the content, had not signed release orders, and received threats after it was uploaded.

Following the order, the video has been removed from YouTube (for now), a quick search reveals trailers that show a “copyright takedown screen”. Its important to remember the court order is in light of the copyright violation and not the nature of the content of the video, similarly Google’s reaction to the court order is on the use of the copyright law for content takedown and not the nature of the content in question.

The government that was quick to keep access to the site blocked has been exceptionally slow with their response. Surprise, surprise! The ban was never based on the video but a good-looking public excuse to allow filters to be installed that can make room for blanket surveillance and censorship. National security, blasphemy and immorality have made for great excuses to censor information.

From the anatomy of the breast to breast cancer, we’ve got all our national security threats sorted and successfully blocked. There might be a phone call in the offing to tell Minister sahiba and brief PM sahab on how the video may reappear once again, never mind other petty issues such as the Taliban offensive and the education emergency that demand our immediate attention, and the ministry will have yet another public excuse to keep the ban going.

In the past six months, we have heard it all, from buying filters to blocking access to the specific video, to renting filters from PTCL, to forcing Google to localise, to banning all of Google if it doesn’t comply, to now, finding a new excuse to keep the site blocked, there is no method to this madness, neither an end.

It took well over a year for the court in San Francisco to make its decision, Google will be challenging the decision based on the use of the copyright law, which in case of a content sharing website could be lethal, but that might take a while.

The state has in its hands a unique opportunity to mend its ways, we can either choose to dig our heads out of the sand or keep shooting ourselves in the foot; I'll keep the Band-Aids handy.