Tag Archives: Censorship

YouTube ban: Running out of excuses


Dawn File Photo

The post originally appeared on the Dawn Blog 

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Although, there was a moment of clarity in December 2012 when the ban was revoked, but that quite literally lasted for two hours only.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

Unpacking an Anti-Censorship Campaign


Post written for and appeared in global voices advocacy

When the ICT R&D fund in Pakistan announced a call for proposals earlier this year for a “National URL Filtering and Blocking System” inviting companies, academia and research institutions to bid; my reaction was of shock and disbelief. Not because censorship is a new phenomenon in Pakistan — in fact it has been legitimized and often protected under the constitution camouflaged as an initiative to counter blasphemy, immorality and national security threats — but because of the audacity of making the bid publicly, and also involving institutions that are likely to be censorship’s biggest victims.

It is perhaps the first time that a government has announced its plans for censorship publicly. In the past years, Pakistan’s government has been involved in covertly censoring the Internet, the acquiring of a National URL Filtering and Blocking System would be the last nail in the coffin. In a security state where civil liberties repeatedly succumb to national security measures, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight for Internet freedom. Having been a part of anti-censorship campaigns before, two things were absolutely clear, the state will use its usual ploys — religion, morality and national security– for unquestionable authority; and for an anti-censorship campaign to be successful it must make use of the same tactics. An argument, which the state cannot refute.

Call for proposals for a national URL filtering and blocking system

Call for proposals for national filtering and blocking system

When a state embroils its citizens in an ‘either you are with us or against us’ argument every dissent is at risk of being equated to treason– or in an Islamic country, blasphemy. Therefore the most important key player in anti-censorship strategy is to steer the argument away from contentious issues. That’s not to say that civil rights should be surrendered but the narrative needs to more coherent, logical than it is defensive. The first response was todemand answers from the government, on what had provoked such a decision, if stakeholders were taken on board, if they are aware of the repercussions of such a system and a demand to take all stakeholders on board before any decision is made on the proposal.

Coordinating local and global action

As expected the calls for accountability from civil society were met with silence. Nevertheless, setting up the tone for the campaign; actively resistingthe impending firewall. The call for accountability also made it easier for us to approach political figures in power, who otherwise refrain from engaging with civil society campaigns that target the government proactively as their initial reaction.

The announcement also alarmed the global community to respond to Pakistan’s government. I believe this was and remains one of the most crucial part of the campaign. However, as international pressure was building up it was important to consider that advocacy campaigns do not exist in a vacuum, and take into account the cultural and geopolitical context. For example, countering a ban on blasphemous content with an argument on freedom of expression in a country like Pakistan is not only counterproductive but life threatening. Therefore, it was important to have a coordinated, global and local action.

Before the global community could be involved a few questions needed to be considered. When the government is using national security as an argument, is involving international community to demand an end to the decision a wise step? Especially, organizations based in the United States? Will a call to uphold democratic values by international organizations be discarded in the usual ‘we do not believe in you version of democracy’ fashion? Will international organizations shouting at the government uphold democracy, or help or make it easy for the state to curtail dissent by deeming them as western ploys?

Nevertheless, a global campaign, if organized and strategic, maximizes impact. The campaign needed to be simple, effective and widespread, giving priority to issues that would most concern the government:

  • Economic: Impact of censorship on businesses, entrepreneurs and innovation.
  • Academic: academic paralysis, with a rigorous filtering system, the Web sphere will be limited, hence it would mean less content accessible for carrying out research (example: UAE where in trying to censor porn, students could no longer access research papers on breast cancer).
  • Democratic culture: In a country where public discourse is limited, shrinking the public sphere will be damaging. With elections nearing, this could greatly impact the government’s claim to advance democracy.

For users:

  • Security & Privacy: It would permit authorities to sniff into your conversations. Blanket surveillance.
  • Social networks will not only be prone to surveillance but could be blocked just because another user has put up content that authorities consider ‘objectionable’.

Public discourse:

  • During the 2007 emergency imposed by Musharraf, the media crackdown resulted in an outpouring of information on social networks. These were actively used to mobilize people, spread information regarding police brutality on journalists and protesters and work as a news portal in the absence of mainstream media. Authorities recognize that this could be crucial in the future, hence complete control would enable them to censor political dissent.
  • A huge number of Baloch websites have already been blocked, and we have no reassurances or reasons to believe that a ‘flip flop’ switch for the Internet will not be used to silence mainstream voices. Imagine mainstream media websites being banned under the same pretext.

While it is important to build pressure on the government it is also crucial topressure international surveillance companies not to sell surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes. Civil society in Pakistan, urged international organizations to call for surveillance companies to not bid for the proposal, five out of eight companies responded with a commitment.

This, I believe has paved way for activists living under Internet crackdown and surveillance to pressure the companies to stop aiding authoritarian regimes. Similar letters were issued to academic institutes to commit not to consider the government’s initiative and inform them of the repercussions it will have on academia.

When international organizations wrote to the government informing them about the impact this could have on economy, academia, trade and democracy — highlighting democracy and freedom of expression only after the economy factor– the authorities had little choice but to respond. The tone had to be set through the mainstream media as well; hence a press kit with simply worded FAQs helped in getting the issue significant coverage in local press. Proactively approaching journalists resulted in the issue being covered even in the Urdu press, again the pertinent point here was informing the media how this could impact them and hence ‘owing the campaign’.

Current status

A few weeks ago, the Secretary of IT, made a verbal commitment to Bushra Gohar, Member National Assembly, that the plans for the filtering system have been shelved. Thus far there has been no official statement. However, the Ministry has made verbal commitments over the week, shifting the blameon the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. There’s both a positive and negative aspect of the situation at present: the negative being that the authorities are most likely to continue censoring covertly, and that the verbal commitment is a delaying tactic. It’s positive because of the apparent rift between government sectors and the reluctance to take the blame can only work in our favor.

I strongly feel that the campaign was a success because of consistent pressure from organizations globally. Even though we have still only received verbal commitments, I believe that the success lies in how we planned the campaign to focus on issues such as businesses, trade, academia and economy, steering the debate away from the more controversial issues of blasphemy.

Religion and morality are often used for unquestionable authority and have thus far been a successful tool. Rather than reacting to state’s use of these issues and creating an ‘either you are with us or against us situation’ we focused on things that really matter. When international organizations wrote to the government speaking about how it impacts academia, businesses, user privacy and democratic culture, the authorities had little choice but to reconsider the repercussions of such a system. There is no doubt that the success and power lies in coordinated, strategic and consistent efforts enabling us to truly respond as a global community resisting censorship.