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YouTube ban: Running out of excuses

Updated Mar 01, 2014 05:06pm

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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Although, there was a moment of clarity in December 2012 when the ban was revoked, but that quite literally lasted for two hours only.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.

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Sana Saleem is the co-founder of Bolo Bhi & Stories Beyond Borders.

She's on the board of advisory for Courage Foundation, Edward Snowden's legal defence fund.

She can be found on Twitter & Facebook.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (37) Closed



Farhan Mar 01, 2014 01:19am

I absolutely agree with every single word in this post, Now that the video has been taken down, what is our govt waiting for?

Sajjad Mar 01, 2014 01:21am

It's like "Bhens ke Agae Bheem bajana" :D

El Cid Mar 01, 2014 02:54am

quick look at the Google Transparency Report reveals that only a small portion of such takedown requests are complied with

Those rare deletions are not so rare in case of Israel and US. These are on the spot videos of these two entities committing extreme atrocities...over 1500 videos removed on orders from Israel alone.

Muslim Mar 01, 2014 04:16am

When you attack muslims, their values, relgion this is called freedom of expression But when you say something about anti-semitisim there is huge roar and it is then condemned and they call it against the freedom of expression, hurting feelings. What world we live in? Can any one answer?

Raza Mar 01, 2014 06:12am

Common guys, just lift up the ban. I've gotta study derivatives and watch some documentaries.

malik Mar 01, 2014 08:05am

State happily cowers to the religious zealots. We see it happen all the time.

M. Saeed Awan Mar 01, 2014 09:43am

The PTCL has increased its DSL tariffs but there are plenty of videos missing due to ban. It is total injustice with viewers. Amazingly there are some alter ways to approach ban sites but Pakistani Govt. not realising the situation. Hopefully it will be done soon, we expect from Govt.

aisha Mar 01, 2014 12:18pm

Brilliant article Sana. Ofcourse we also do have to blame our courts - the so called moral upholders of our society. What stops them from reaching a quick decision now. It would be interesting to compare how quickly the courts in the US have responded compared to the courts in Pakistan that have taken ages to resolve a plea to open youtube, which was filed some time ago.

Rizwan Mar 01, 2014 01:00pm

individuals who can unban the you-tube have nothing to do with it ,then why should they unban it.. it is realy "bhens k agay peen bajan". Where, bhens might react to bheen, but they don't. Pakistan and its so called guardians definitely will be remembered in history for their illiterate, conservative, coward and corrupt intellectual approach. they only think to sustain their political position "chair"

Hamish Mar 01, 2014 01:04pm

I'm happy for banistan everytime I read topics like this.

Instead of being mature over the "innocence of muslims" and practicing self censorship, you all clapped and nodded when YouTube was blocked and urls were blocked. Instead of being normal about the existence of porn you all clapped and nodded when porn sites were blocked. Instead of thinking about the future ramifications of all this state policing you all clapped and nodded when SMS packages and deals were blocked.

You will reap what you sow. You have given your corrupt and backward government assent to take arbitrary decisions in your name. They now have several precedents and will continue to create new ones for whatever harms their interests or boosts their popularity; logic be damned.

You deserve going backwards and staying backwards.

Tanweer Mar 01, 2014 02:21pm

Wow!!! People are lagging behind the world because of one website, I thought they could find another 100 bigger and more plausible reasons much easier to find than that.

DOC Mar 01, 2014 04:42pm

"In countries where a local version of YouTube existed

Diligent Mar 01, 2014 04:57pm

''Following the order, the video has been removed from YouTube (for now)'' The full movie is still on youtube site just check in search engine, google has never removed that video instead full movie is uploaded, let's see when google will follow the court's orders.

Feroz Mar 01, 2014 05:01pm

We live in an information age where every thing is easily accessible. To compete with others and be successful, access to open channels of information and knowledge is a prerequisite. If you do not like a book, please do not read it, do not like a video then you must not watch it. Where is the need to prevent others from doing what they want. Those demanding censorship are hypocrites who want to maintain their strangle hold on people and deprive them their liberty and freedom, guaranteed by most Constitutions.

Aamir Soomro Mar 01, 2014 05:15pm

There are lots of lecture videos relating to programming, computer science, etc. which are not available on any other site.

Now since youtube has blocked that video then the government should take action and remove this ban.

Different View Mar 01, 2014 06:46pm

i wonder why Pakistan doesn't develops its own Youtube. And have someone put the videos that Pakistan wants on PakistanTube.

Shabbir Mar 01, 2014 07:48pm

The whole ban is misunderstood in context by many people. Google/YouTube makes money from advertisements on their website and the users of their website are actually the products. The ban is to deprive Google from the revenue it earns from Pakistan. It can more be seen as a protest by our Govt against Google by not respecting our nations and in general Muslims' demand to remove the malicious video.

Don't fall for the hollow slogan of "Freedom of speech" propagated by the west. In the name of "Freedom of speech", can I go to Obama and curse his mother and sister on his face? Will he accept my right of Freedom of Speech and let me go once I am done? A BIG NO. Freedom of speech cannot be with open boundaries. Google crossed the limit by defending the right to keep the video there! What is disgusting of the whole defending of Google is that if their President, an ordinary man, cannot be disrespected, how do they justify a disrespecting video on the name of Freedom of Speech????

illawarrior Mar 02, 2014 06:20am

@Shabbir: It is not illegal to disrespect the US president. Just check out the political cartoons in newspapers. Almost every president who ever was, has been publicly lampooned at some time. Whilst swearing at him might be illegal, telling him that you think he is a fool/idiot, is not.

illawarrior Mar 02, 2014 06:23am

@Shabbir: Watch the movie Primary Colors - see how it disrespects Bill Clinton who was president at that time

illiterate fool Mar 02, 2014 12:39pm

"She has won the Best Activist Blogger award by CIO and Google" that's the only reason she wants to lift the ban to won several more.

khan Mar 02, 2014 03:25pm

Banning YouTube was the correct course of action for Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Of anyone goes out and tell me there is naats and islamic programs on there too but is there more of it or more of nudity, violence crude filth and brain washing material. If China can survive without Google then Pakistan can survive without youtube stop reverting back to our old ways if for once we have made the right decision not just for you but for 180 million people. Keep YouTube banned Mr PM

khan Mar 02, 2014 03:28pm

@Aamir Soomro: Yeah needle in a haystack. Keep YouTube banned.

khan Mar 02, 2014 03:33pm

@Hamish: Stop being so negative. Its the negativity thats eating us inside out. U sound like u have given up

khan Mar 02, 2014 03:37pm

And of course Sana Saleem is going to wrote a pro YouTube blog cause she has been previously decorated by Google the parent company

Abdulla Hussain Mar 02, 2014 03:46pm

Why some of us are dying for the resumption of youtube services in Pakistan. There should be no hurry in reviving it. Unless the concerned irritant is totally removed the ban should stay firmly

sarah siraj Mar 02, 2014 09:59pm

Why i don't know the breath of some folks starts stopping when they can't enjoy the filth of Youtube. There are many things not available in Pakistan many of them important but no body cares why on the earth this youtube got some importance because some people have financial interest in it.....Where the love of Islam goes this time..if there was any

Zafar Mar 02, 2014 10:12pm

If Pakistan is the only country which has this ban in place, then what about SA and Iran with governments that are on the surface more religious leaning, why don't they have this issue. As the author so clearly hinted, this is just a pretext for information to stay out of the hands of the people. Is there a political motivation to keep any political opposition in check?

Joe Mar 02, 2014 10:50pm

A bookshelf has thousands of excellent, informative, useful books that people could use to further their education, skills, job performance, and competence in the world. It also has an ugly, offensive book.

The Pakistani solution: ban the bookshelf.

The 'knowledge police' have spoken. How silly is that?

ayesha Mar 02, 2014 11:02pm

@Raza:

I suppose you are missing the tutorials from Khan Academy.

Ahsan Mar 03, 2014 12:56am

Very good article. Sana, you may not get appreciated here in Pakistan as most of the people don't even have any idea what censorship is and that they are deprived of something without any reason. Keep on good work. I appreciate your point of view!

Amin Hussain Mar 03, 2014 11:52am

Anybody who believes in absolute freedom of speech is an idiot. Everybody quoting western democracies need to go and carefully read up on the NSA scandal and wikileaks as well as looking into GCHQ and the UK govt's treatment of the guardian post Snowden... you might also want to check out the treatment being meted out to a guy called barett brown ... the response to whistleblowers and journalists alike is appalling as soon as it does any serious reporting that hinders serious interests of powerful lobbies. As long as people as making fun of IQ or accents thats all fine, but seriously questioning govt motive can land you in a lot of hot water... check out how many journalists are currently being prosecuted by the US govt basically for doing their job... Something similar is going on in the UK.

And yet we, in a semi-developed third world country are bending over backwards to ensure "freedom of speech" basically for a foreign company! It's good if Youtube does business in Pakistan, but they have to realise that in our country they play by our rules and cater to our sensitivities. Theres nothing odd about that at all.

DailyJudge Mar 03, 2014 11:57am

@Muslim: The difference is, Jews don't riot in the streets and scream death threats against people who deny the Holocaust or show any other kind of anti-Semitism.

Zafari Syed Mar 03, 2014 12:21pm

The main aim is to make them realize that it is offensive to Muslims and to deprive them of income from ADs in Pakistan till they take such material off.

Removing a portion of it on Court's order is not enough of justification to lift the ban.

J.Khan Mar 03, 2014 01:49pm

One can watch YOU TUBE or other banned/restricted sites through proxy servers/VPN with a little bit of ads irritation. The ban is useless and is a political stunt. Islam is the best blackmailing tactics in now a days politics in Pakistan

khan Mar 03, 2014 02:36pm

@Amin Hussain: Very well said. Those of you that want it allowed and believe so much in freedom of speech which you dont really know what it means read this

huzefa Mar 03, 2014 06:06pm

everyone has right for their own opinion , pakistan has banned youtube on a good basis and showed respect , but now if youtube has removed the video whats the ban for ?? why depriving people of information they can have from this site. nodoubt youtube is the only site where you get so good information.1 thing il surely add if pakistani govt takes so much responsiblity of islam everytime than what about the night packages they offer girls and boys to talk at night and why not in morning so we can actually take use of telecomunication???????? bottom line: its all personal motives !!

salman Mar 03, 2014 08:08pm

stupid reaction by a stupid bunch of irrational and unedcuated nation.

something did and said something bad and immoral. so why the hell are we reacting so much? we didn't do or say it?

rubbish. the writer is bang on, no method to this madness.