YouTube: a calcified issue

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THE outrage is over, the perceived hurt has healed and the piece of mischief that caused the furore in the first place has taken its place in the dustbin of history.

The world has moved on — except for Pakistan, which stubbornly refuses to come to terms with the realities of the age of information, and in doing so, continues to deprive its citizenry of internet freedoms.

We refer, of course, to the blockade on access to the file-sharing site YouTube. Imposed on Sept 12, 2012, this was originally an ill-thought-out fire-fighting measure, but more than two years later, matters stand exactly where they did that September.

Take a look: ‘No solution but to persist with YouTube ban’

If anything, the issue has calcified: the site cannot generally be accessed from this country; those with the ability have found means of bypassing the ban; and the government is still casting about for ways and means to block content it considers blasphemous on the site.

Most recently, on Friday, Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman told the Senate that as a result of the Supreme Court ordering the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block all offending material, the matter had been reviewed several times but there was no way to do this other than by imposing a blanket ban on the site.

The irony here is that it was Ms Rehman who, soon after taking office, promised the restoration of the site.

Leave aside the issue of offensive content, what this sorry story speaks volumes for is the state’s attitude towards citizens’ right to attain information — apparently, it really could not care less. In trying to ensure that access to selective content is restricted, it has completely shut down a site that is the gateway to information and entertainment for millions of people.

While other nations factor in and meet the challenges thrown up by the internet and a globalised world — including Muslim countries — Pakistan penalises its citizens under the pretext of protecting them from material they might — might — find offensive. Today it is YouTube; tomorrow it might be the internet in its entirety. And, the acerbic would argue, why stop here?

This piece of absurdity has to come to an end. Of the various potential solutions that have been thrown up during these two years, the most feasible might be the one suggested by Google itself but which the government does not seem to have pondered over much: the display of interstitial warnings on pages that contain objectionable material.

This, as the Lahore High Court observed last year while hearing a petition on the issue, would pin liability on the user who “consciously and deliberately ignore[d] the warning page” before accessing content that is offensive or in contravention of local laws.

The approach Pakistan has taken so far is not just laughably ineffective, it is indicative of just how out of touch the state is with technological realities.

Dawn

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