When is YouTube opening? The question has tormented Pakistan’s internet users since the release of the Innocence of Muslims trailer, and the consequent blanket ban in September 2012.
The answer was assumedly the responsibility of the then PPP government, which opted instead to let the issue slide and become the incoming PML-N’s headache. To its credit, the PML-N brought in the right person for the job — Information Technology Minister Anusha Rehman was among the most vocal and progressive voices in the previous government’s National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology. She was absolutely in favour of unblocking YouTube — so what went wrong? Plenty.
Since assuming power, the government has refused to tackle the issue seriously, opting instead to issue intermittent vague promises of an end to the ban, while near simultaneously insisting the ban would remain in place. This strategy may have worked indefinitely if it wasn’t for a petition filed in the Lahore High Court that resulted in a court ordered meeting in May between petitioners Bytes For All, members of the Ministry of Information Technology, including Anusha Rehman, and the heads of multiple government and corporate organisations, including the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
The outcome of the meeting was positive and a joint submission by all stakeholders to the court is in the pipeline. This week, the National Assembly also unanimously adopted a resolution to lift the ban on YouTube, but stakeholders close to the issue are divided on whether these developments signal real progress.
“The National Assembly resolution is a big drama. A representative from YouTube has visited Pakistan three times in the last year but the minister refused to meet him,” a source close to the issue said, adding that Google submitted a solution in writing to the Senate months ago: interstitial warnings — a warning page before a video plays — that appears on every copy of Innocence of Muslims hosted on YouTube, not just in Pakistan, but globally.
Additionally, the source said Google also agreed to blocking any copies of the video in future if notified by Pakistan; however, a first list submitted by the government included numerous video block requests that were not copies of Innocence of Muslims. Given such tactics and massive delays on the part of the government, Google went ahead with this solution anyway.
“It’s really simple. Interstitials were offered to Pakistan just like they were offered to Bangladesh, which accepted the solution last year and ended the ban,” says Director of BoloBhi Farieha Aziz. “YouTube has already applied this, Pakistan doesn’t even have to request it — it’s been done. All that remains is for the PML-N government to make the decision to unban YouTube and move forward.”
For Google, this system was easy to implement as a stopgap solution until Pakistan introduces an intermediary liability protection (ILP) law, which the company has been demanding in order to establish a localised version of YouTube. The localised version of the site would give both Pakistan and Google greater flexibility in responding to such a crisis in future, but this option remains in limbo as ILP is part and parcel of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Ordinance which has remained in draft form for the last five years and was, ironically, the legislation Anusha Rehman worked on at length.
Those in the industry say Google is also not interested in ‘going down the Facebook path’ — a reference to the social network’s agreement with the government to restrict access to pages and groups as submitted by the PTA.
The agreement has been roundly criticised by human rights organisations due to its clandestine nature, and in light of the fact that Facebook pages such as that of Roshni.pk — an independent group lobbying for secularism in Pakistan — were restricted for local users by Facebook, while pages run by banned organisations and militant groups continue to operate with relative impunity.
According to those working on the issue, the interstitial warnings solution seems the only acceptable way forward in the short term.
“I can say with absolute authority there is no technical solution to blocking content on YouTube … even the government has realised that,” says Country Director of Bytes For All Pakistan Shahzad Ahmad, in reference to the recent joint meeting ordered by the LHC.
“Intermediary liability protection laws will also not be enough … mechanisms would have to be developed as simply imposing a law with no real systems in place will cause more harm than good,” he adds.
Given that interstitial warnings are already in place for Innocence of Muslims on YouTube and can be applied to any future videos that result in a crisis-like situation, ending the ban on YouTube appears to only be a question of political will — end the ban, flip the switch.
But what if interstitials are ‘not enough’ for the extremist elements that led the violent riots resulting in the ban on YouTube?
As Ahmad recalls, “This point has been brought up many times in the courtroom, and it has been used as a threat as well, with groups walking into sessions warning of dire consequences…but stopping danga fasaad is the state’s job, isn’t it? If mobs come out on the streets and break the law, should we fold over, or stay the course and do the right thing?”