In the year 2010, during the month of May, Pakistani authorities shut down the popular social networking site Facebook, as it was allegedly hosting certain ‘blasphemous’ pages.
Not much time went by before the same authorities, a year later in 2011, attempted to ban around 1,700 words from being used/appearing in text messages (sms), words they thought were ‘obscene’. This included terms such as ‘athlete’s foot’, ‘lotion’ and even ‘idiot’, which I believe and majority would agree are rather inoffensive and mild, to say the least. This however, was short-lived.
It did not end there. In September 2012, YouTube was blocked throughout the country, and still remains so to date. Let’s not however make this sound like some evil plot where Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the authority essentially responsible for the above mentioned bans, is some villain and Facebook and now YouTube the innocent victims. The reason all signs of Youtube were removed from the face of our Pakistani soil was because of certain videos posted by users on YouTube, and in turn viewed by millions of users all across the globe. These videos, starting with ‘Fitna’, a controversial Dutch film posted in 2008, followed by a ban stemming from ‘Everybody draw Mohammad Day’ in 2010 and the last straw being the trailer of Sam Bacile’s ‘Innocent of Muslims’, were collectively seen as controversial and offensive to most Muslims as they were portraying a mockery of Islam. The same was followed by countrywide protests, leaving the Pakistani authorities no choice but to bar access to YouTube all across the country. YouTube’s refusal to remove the offensive content from the website has resulted in a long term ban on the site, leading up to four years and counting.
In their defense, it is not that the Pakistani government has made no efforts to lift this ban, or come to a workable solution with YouTube authorities. YouTube is after all, one of the most useful sources of knowledge and resource available over the internet today. While Pakistan stands resolved to the fact that YouTube must remove these religiously intolerable videos, YouTube insists the same are in accordance with its Terms of service and therefore must continue to stay on the website. This bone of contention has lead to a deadlock in negotiations between the two parties, even though it was announced by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority in December, 2013 that they have been successful in convincing Google’s management to offer a local version YouTube i.e. www.youtube.com.pk, specific to Pakistan whereby it will be easy for local authorities to remove any material they may deem objectionable. This however shall be offered once Pakistani authorities have fulfilled certain undisclosed requirements, legal and otherwise, as laid down by YouTube. This has not been achieved so far; almost two years and counting.
Background, chain of causation and events out of the way, one really begins to wonder; why is Pakistan stuck amidst such conflict? Is it Pakistani mentality to create chaos, give rise to unrest, both political and religious, stand up for a just/rightful cause and still end up being the losers at the end? The answer to that: we are not the only ones. YouTube, the third most visited website in the world, has been the subject of much controversy, resulting in national bans in countries such as China, Iran, Turkmenistan and even Germany. The Armenian government blocked YouTube in 2008 after Armenian opposition leaders used the website to publicize videos of the police and military brutality carried out against anti-government protestors. In January, 2010, Libya permanently blocked YouTube after it featured videos of demonstrations in Benghazi by families of detainees killed in a Libyan prison in 1996 as well as questionable private videos of the family members of Libyan leader Gaddafi. Even Morocco blocked YouTube in 2007 and did not give any particular reasons for doing so!
Then why is it that the Pakistani public is continuously showering our government, in particular the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, Federal Investigation Agency and more so the Ministry of Information Technology with hate, disapproval and condemnation? On the one hand, it is true that the prime reason for Government officials not being in a position to remove the ban is due to fear of public reaction and uproar. On the other hand, for YouTube, it is the ‘freedom of expression’ that they are adamant to promote and protect, even at the cost of them losing out on royalties and loss of profits that were once being earned from the Pakistani market. Furthermore, on the one hand, the YouTube ban has been a source of contentment for some public figures as it could previously be used to expose their wrongdoings. Simultaneously, on the other hand, thanks to proxies such as Hotspot Shield and other VPN’s, a large percentage of the Pakistani public, at present, still has access to the contentious site and its provocative contents. It has also been a blessing in disguise for other video sharing website such Vimeo and Dailymotion, which is the sixth most visited website in Pakistan today, making Pakistan the top contributor to Dailymotion’s 2.5 billion video views per month.
What then is the future of YouTube in Pakistan? It is true that on April 21, 2014, Pakistan’s Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights did approve a resolution to lift the ban. Consequently, on May 6, 2014, the National Assembly unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution to lift the ban as well. All these efforts however, seem to be of no avail. However, from all of the above, one thing is evident for sure; the struggle is, in fact real.