ISLAMABAD: The government told the Senate on Friday that there was no way to block blasphemous content on video-sharing website YouTube without banning the entire site itself. However, the fact that hundreds of Internet users across the country continue to bypass the official ban and access YouTube through their computers, smartphones and tablets on a daily basis, flies in the face of the government’s stance.
Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman told the Senate on Friday that the Supreme Court had ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block offending material on YouTube or any other website. She said the matter was reviewed several times, but the situation was effectively still the same. Technical experts, she insisted, also agreed that there was no solution which could guarantee 100 per cent blockage of objectionable content on YouTube.
However, the minister’s remarks seemingly contradict the gist of a Lahore High Court (LHC) order from May 13, 2014 in the matter of Bytes For All VS the Federation of Pakistan – commonly known as the YouTube case. In the final order, a copy of which is available with Dawn, LHC judges Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and Atir Mehmood noted that the minister was directed to hold a meeting of information technology (IT) experts and the PTA technical team to evolve a strategy to block controversial material from YouTube.
While the minister told the court even then that no known technical solution is available to ensure 100 per cent blocking of such content, the committee of IT experts proposed three options: blocking all access to YouTube (the status quo); barring YouTube access on secure HTTPS protocols and shifting it to HTTP, which will allow for blocking access to individual videos; and, the display of ‘interstitial warnings’ on pages that contain objectionable content.
The court concluded that the third option seemed most feasible, observing that in this manner, “a person will have to consciously and deliberately ignore the warning page and make an effort to obtain access to [the] controversial site”.
However, the Supreme Court order of Sept 17, 2012, which was also cited by the minister on the floor of the Senate, still remains the major stumbling block.
Yasser Latif Hamdani, the counsel representing Bytes For All in the YouTube case, told Dawn that the government was trying to sidestep the real issue by not seeking clarification on the Supreme Court order. “The question really is whether, even today, the objectionable materials are 100 per cent blocked. Is YouTube not accessible through various other methods,” he asked, rhetorically.
“By the logic the government is applying in this case, they should block the entire Internet because ultimately that is what this erroneous interpretation of the order means. What the government should do is seek a clarification of the SC order, which it doesn’t want to,” he said.
In a written reply to the Senate question, submitted on behalf of the minister in-charge of the Cabinet Division, it was stated, “As an alternative measure, the government of Pakistan is in process of providing intermediary liability protection for internet content providers through the Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill 2014, which will then be a consideration for localisation of YouTube in Pakistan subject to it being a business case for Google. This, in itself, will not guarantee access to YouTube in Pakistan.”
However, Bytes For All Country Director Shahzad Ahmed told Dawn that the localisation of YouTube was not a solution, because that would make the site subject to censor and scrutiny under local laws, allowing the government to filter any content which they don’t want to see online.
“Such measures are very problematic in the context of local laws, which are vague in their terminology and conflict with the constitution’s chapters on fundamental rights,” he said.
The government, he said, looks at the Internet from security-tinted lenses. “They do not see the educational, developmental or social value of the Internet and unless their perspective changes, we will continue to see more filtering, blocking and persecution of individuals online,” he said.