What will Pakistanis see on YouTube?

YouTube is back in Pakistan, with a localised domain and a provision that Islamabad can ask for access to material it deems “objectionable” to be blocked.

This has sparked fears of censorship among digital rights activists, who say that what started as a move to curb “blasphemy” may now extend to curbing political dissent.
It is too early to see what’s missing and what’s not on YouTube.com.pk.

The Innocence of Muslims, an amateur film about the Prophet Muhammad which was widely seen as derogatory to Islam and which sparked Pakistan’s YouTube ban in September 2012, is not available for viewing.

But much of the other material, such as songs by a Pakistani band called Beygairat (disgraceful) Brigade which are highly critical of Pakistan’s powerful military, are still available.

So was Pakistan’s three-year YouTube hiatus really just about preventing riots over a film deemed blasphemous?

Farieha Aziz, journalist and co-founder of a digital rights and advocacy group called Bol Bhi (Do speak up), says the YouTube ban went into effect days before protests over the film actually broke out.

“This would mean that the Pakistani authorities were aiming for something more than just that,” she says.

Also, now that YouTube is back online, there are fears over the lack of transparency on the part of both the government and Google.

“Google has not offered any details of the agreement with Islamabad, but in private discussions they have indicated that as and when Pakistan requests for the blocking of certain content, Google will remove it after vetting the request in accordance with international standards,” says Farhan Hussain of another digital rights group, Bytes for All Pakistan.

YouTube has denied claims that the authorities can filter content, saying all takedown requests were subject to its own reviews.

In a statement it said: “We have clear community guidelines, and when videos violate those rules, we remove them. In addition, where we have launched YouTube locally and we are notified that a video is illegal in that country, we may restrict access to it after a thorough review.”

Hussain said: “The problem is, we don’t know what their vetting process is, and what those international standards are. Google’s annual transparency reports only provide statistics - such as how many requests for a ban were made by a country, and how many of them were accepted. But we would like to know the details of those requests.”
And what about firewalls?

Digital rights activists are unanimous that localisation of a website has full potential to become a tool for censorship in the hands of a country.

In Pakistan, where so-called national security interests have dominated the basic rights of citizens, the tendency to control religious, gender and political diversity may continue to fuel a restrictive approach to information.

Already, the country has invested heavily in firewalls to block dozens of websites, particularly those run by ethnic Baloch separatists.

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