Last week, members of the Bolo Bhi team observed a session at the National Assembly, anticipating a resolution to unban YouTube to be tabled. Member of National Assembly MNA Shazia Marri (PPP) had tabled a resolution seeking to lift the ban on YouTube on April 1, however, it never made it to the agenda. She was informed it would be put to the house in the next session: April 8. However, the resolution was omitted from the agenda despite the assurance.

During the assembly session, Leader of the Opposition, Khurshid Shah (PPP) raised this on the floor of the assembly and was assured it would be included in the agenda. However, the session neared its close and still the matter did not come up for discussion. Ms. Marri took the floor nonetheless to raise this issue. The speaker, however, maintained the matter was in court and thus sub judice, therefore could not be discussed. In response to this Ms. Marri read out portions from the judge’s interim order,  which stated that a “defenceless battle” was being waged against technology; that “it is impossible to block content 100% ;” and, most importantly, the government of the day had been instructed to devise a policy by the court.

It must be mentioned that  members of the opposition, namely Shireen Mazari (PTI), Dr. Arif Alvi (PTI), Syed Ali Raza Abidi (MQM) and Saman Jafri (MQM) had signed Ms. Marri’s resolution in support. MQM legislators raised point of orders to raise the issue which were quelled, and Ms Mazari was heard on the floor of the assembly saying “at least let her speak,” in reference to Ms. Marri.

However, this too held no sway over the speaker, and in an unprecedented occurrence, the assembly session was called to a close much earlier than usual time.

Minister for IT and Telecommunications, Ms. Anusha Rahman who attended the assembly session, left the NA  just before the issue was raised, delegating to a fellow party member to respond on this matter.

The next day, Bolo Bhi joined MNA Khurshid Shah, Shazia Marri and Senator Farhatullah Babar to issue a joint press statement from Leader of Opposition’s office, to register our concerns about the Government’s  lack of interest on this matter.  Senator Afrasiab Khattak (ANP), who also tabled a resolution to lift the ban in the Senate, was present in person to support the issue, while legislators namely Dr Farooq Sattar and Syed Ali Raza Abidi of the MQM, Shireen Mazari and Dr Arif Alvi of PTI, and Senators Mushahid Hussain Syed (PML-Q) and Osman Saifullah Khan (PPP), all extended their support even though they could not be there in person.

In response to this joint statement, an official from MoIT contacted by the Express Tribune said the following: “The government has decided to disregard both the recommendations of a parliamentary panel and the resolution moved by Pakistan Peoples Party’s MNA Shazia Marri in the National Assembly this week.” According to a Ministry official, “the government would only follow the court orders.”

Have a look a how compliant the Ministry of IT has been with the courts:

Google’s letter not submitted to court by MoIT

It must be mentioned that a response was solicited from Google by the court in May 2013. The query was routed through the Ministry of IT and the response was to be submitted in June 2013. On the day of the hearing, an official from the Ministry of IT appeared and informed the court “Google was not interested in joining the instant proceedings.” This was a gross misrepresentation as the Ministry had already received a response from Google which it was supposed to submit to court. In the next hearing (July 2013), when this was raised in court, the document was discovered at the bottom of the case file. It appears that through a deliberate act, it was never formally submitted to court by MoIT.

Court directs MoIT to devise policy

After hearing all sides: petitioner, ministry officials, PTA, Google (through it’s response in letter form) and amici, the honourable judge directed the Minister of IT to appear in court, seeking a response from her on what the government intends to do about the ban.

An interim order dated August 2013 noted proceeding details and indicated a response that could be adopted to resolve this issue and similar ones if they occur in future. The government was instructed to come up with a policy.

Seven months on, no such policy was prepared.

Court summons Minister of IT – again

When in March 2014 court hearings resumed before a divisional bench (two-member), again the Minister was summoned. The judge wanted a clear yes or no on lifting of the ban. However, again, the Minister did not appear; security reasons were cited for the no-show. The Federal Secretary IT appeared on her behalf, however the judge said it was the Minister who was asked  to appear and it was her who needed to respond to court. As an alternate to appearing, the honourable judge then sought a written response by the Minister.

The response that was ultimately brought to court was rejected by the judge. It was not on a Ministry letterhead nor signed by the Minister.

The judge gave the federation two days for a proper response to be submitted. When the letter was received and contents read out, it was noted that it offered nothing substantive or new – it was a nine-month old response. Also as noted by the honourable judge, the letter did not respond to the question asked: what was the Ministry’s stance on lifting the ban on YouTube.

Court directs Minister to meet with IT experts

Following this, through a written order issued by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, heading the divisional bench hearing the YouTube case, the Minister of IT has been asked to meet with a committee of four IT experts (see here). This meeting has yet to be called – the members have not heard from the Ministry yet. Findings of this committee are to be compiled and submitted to court on May 13, 2014, which is the next date of hearing.

The issue as it stands

1) The government has not complied with court orders; in fact stalled proceedings by not appearing and submitting timely response.

2) By saying the government will not take an independent decision and follow court’s orders, it is actually contravening the court’s orders.

3) Resolutions by opposition members to lift the ban on YouTube, both in the National Assembly and Senate have been blocked. The government is trying to prevent discussion on this subject in the assemblies by saying the matter is sub judice, even though the court has clearly instructed it to meet with experts, consult stakeholders and devise a policy and move towards a solution.

View our resource document with links to court submissions, documentary & interviews and TV shows here

There is a strong reason to believe now that the traffic for our gateways is being managed by Netsweeper.

The research revolves around one of the key gateways that handles network traffic for Karachi, namely the following server:

khi77.pie.net.pk (202.125.134.154)

From within Pakistan, any attempt to access this server results in an access block.

However, when accessing this very same server from _outside_ of Pakistan such as the US, results in the following screen being rendered in browser (with a self signed certificate). Click on image below:

Netsweeper Image 150x150 Netsweeper in Use in Pakistan

If noted in the annotation, there is a clear graphic at the bottom indicating “Powered by Netsweeper”

If nothing else, this is clear evidence of Netsweeper’s software being installed on critical national network infrastructure. We anticipate that system administrators at PIE (Pakistan Internet Exchange) will be quick to block access to HTTPS on the gateway in question from the outside as well once access to it is publicized.

Imran Moinuddin is the Founder & CEO of NexDegree

Read More on Netsweeper:

June 20: Netsweeper in Pakistan?

Citizen Lab’s report on Netsweeper’s Presence in Pakistan

July 23: Letter to Canadian High Commission Seeking Disclosure on Netsweeper

September 9: Canadian Government Responds to Netsweeper’s Presence in Pakistan 

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2013 issue

“We’ve taught YouTube a lesson by banning it and forcing Google to lose out on revenue in Pakistan because it did not remove the video.” This was the populist response to the ban, which is now almost a year long, on the video-sharing platform. But was that really the case?

The ban on YouTube was imposed in September 2012 upon the orders of then prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf. This was in response to a film, Innocence of Muslims, uploaded on the video-sharing platform, which depicted the Prophet (PBUH) in a disrespectful manner. Citing the possible breach of law-and-order, the domain as a whole was blocked to prevent access to the video. On the face of it, it was a preventive measure to stop violence from erupting in reaction to the video. However, despite blocking the platform and announcing “Love the Prophet Day” with the government declaring it a public holiday, neither of these measures stopped the violent protests. News that such a film existed was fodder enough for riots.

Violent protests are not new to Pakistan. Be it at the time of the Danish cartoons, the release of the film Fitna or the caricatures competition hosted on Facebook – they all led to the loss of lives and property, when mobs took to the streets to vent their anger. And all of the damage was internal and cost Pakistanis, not anyone else.

Similarly, the assertion that YouTube was taught a lesson is also misplaced. YouTube’s earnings from countries based on ads have to do with its local presence. Monetary benefit based on views is only generated when there exists a local version of YouTube in the country. As is explained further in this article, YouTube or Google do not have a local or legal presence in Pakistan.

The thing to understand about the internet is this: It is designed in a manner in which 10 roads lead to one destination. If one is blocked, there are alternate routes. This should be evident enough through proxies, which have been used to circumvent blockades, time and again. The other fundamental distinction to be made is that unlike the broadcast medium, what one does not want to see, one will not see online. Unless one consciously makes an effort to search and, most importantly, click to visit a page or website, it will not just appear.

So what did the ban achieve? If anything, it highlighted an unknown video and unknown filmmaker and put them in the limelight – few people knew either existed before the ban. The ban peaked people’s curiosity, and the most unfortunate part is that the traffic to the video surged exponentially after attention was drawn towards it due to the ban. What the ban did not do however was prevent violent protests. If the ban was supported to register one’s protest against Google and YouTube for not removing the video, why did Spotflux and Hotspot Shield become household names, shared as good options to circumvent the ban and access the platform? If the intention was to remove oneself from the platform, why is it being accessed by hordes, despite the ban? And what is the point in keeping the website blocked when it is being accessed anyway?

Much of this and more came up in the ongoing hearing at the Lahore High Court regarding a petition seeking to overturn the ban on YouTube. Initially, during the hearings in April, the honourable judge was of the view that the video must be blocked but not the whole website as it contains other valuable content – particularly of educational worth. There were two approaches to this: A policy approach and a technology solution.

The policy approach involved asking YouTube (Google’s subsidiary) to block the video. There was much back and forth between the Ministry of Information Technology (MOIT) and Google, but it resulted in little success. What emerged through the discourse in court was that YouTube, as a policy, does not remove content that does not meet the criteria in its Community Guidelines. According to the Google Transparency report 2013, Google “received inquiries from 20 countries regarding YouTube videos that contain clips of the movie, Innocence of Muslims: Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt India, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Australia, Egypt, and the United States requested that we review the video to determine if they violated our Community Guidelines, which they did not. The other 17 countries requested that we remove the videos. We restricted videos from view in Indonesia, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey. Due to difficult circumstances, we temporarily restricted videos from view in Egypt and Libya.”

The other question that arose was: Why did YouTube restrict access to the video in other countries but not in Pakistan? The response to this was as follows: Access to the video was restricted in countries where Google was registered and had a country level domain – and neither exist in Pakistan. If Google is registered in a country, then the local laws are applied. Additionally, if country-level domains exist, the content is restricted at that level, not on dot com. Neither Google nor its subsidiary, YouTube, have any legal presence in Pakistan, neither is there a country-level domain.

What would it take to get Google to localise in Pakistan was the next question. There exists a thing called intermediary liability protection which in Pakistan exists for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This is basically a legal clause that stipulates that the service provider cannot be held liable for the actions of its users. In more simple terms, a telecom company for instance, cannot be held responsible for what its users say to one another through the use of their services. This, for online platforms, does not exist in Pakistan.

In the hearing held on April 26, 2013, the judge instructed the MOIT to seek a response from Google whether it would agree to localise if criminal intermediary liability protection was extended to it by the court for an interim period, until parliament legislated, and if that would enable the particular video to be blocked. Google in return asked the court for a period of four weeks to submit a written response on the matter, which was submitted in July. The thrust of Google’s response was this: “The decision as to whether to offer this service is a business, legal and commercial decision, and takes into consideration, for example, whether there is adequate legal certainty and protections for the provision of such online services in the country.” So not only would other considerations factor in for localisation in addition to intermediary liability, Google’s letter stated that without a legislated notice-and-take-down system through which very specific requests are routed, there can be no compliance with requests. One option that Google did offer was interstitial warnings, which is what led to the reopening of YouTube in Bangladesh in June.

An interstitial is a warning screen that appears as a disclaimer before a video displaying in writing: the content in this video may be inappropriate. The only way to watch the video is by clicking to proceed to it. The important distinction here is ‘should one choose to.’ And one very simply can choose not to by never clicking to proceeding to the video. With that, the chapter on what Google could do to resolve this problem came to an end. Next it moved to what MOIT and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) could do.

During the hearings in April, when questioned why particular links to the video had not been blocked but the website as a whole had, PTA officials had this to say: They would block one link and hundreds more would appear. That is when the decision was taken to block at the IP level. This decision, it was said, was taken by the IMCEW (Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites), and a document with the relevant notification was produced in court.

According to PTA, blocking takes place at the ISP level and depending on the ISP – whether it is a large one or small – and the different equipment they have, they can block up to a certain limit. With the video in question, one, the capacity to block links to this video had been exceeded. Two, while they were able to manage blocking HTTP traffic, they were unsuccessful in blocking HTTPS traffic. In a written submission made to the court by PTA on July 25, the authority maintained there was no system in Pakistan capable of blocking HTTPS traffic. In an earlier hearing, a PTA official had remarked that attempting to tamper with HTTPS traffic would be detrimental for commerce and industry.

Asked if upgrading capability and investing in filtering equipment could guarantee that the video and links to it would remain blocked 100%, the answer to this query was, no. This is what led the judge to question why one should then seek a solution that doesn’t guarantee results. Alternately, why not try and raise tolerance levels and make tools available that allow blocking at home, since morality is very subjective and varies family to family.

It is at this critical juncture that the matter rests and the next steps in terms of what the solution is, remains to be decided. On July 25, the judge issued instructions to the Secretary IT and Minister of State to appear at the next hearing so it could be communicated to them what everyone’s input has been and what the court’s mindset is on the issue. Twice, both the secretary and the minister did not appear and excused themselves. Once the date for the next hearing was set for September, alarming statements started being issued by the ministry.

The minister – and the ministry – have been in pursuit of filters from day one. Nothing on the internet can be blocked 100%. It is pertinent to mention here that even China with its ‘Great Firewall,’ which boasts an investment of with millions into it and with a battalion manning it, has not been able to succeed in blocking efforts 100%. Citizens have found ways to side-step and access blocked domains and content.

Despite how the discourse on the issue has evolved in court, the ministry has vehemently stuck to filters as the ultimate solution even though the risks associated with them have been pointed out repeatedly.

Accepting filters to reopen one platform will have terrible ramifications. Blocking a domain is one thing and does not involve invasive methods. But blocking encrypted traffic through methods such as man-in-the-middle attacks, which mask a third-party as the intended recipient to acquire data, is a dangerous deal to strike. As it is, there is no check on the powers of state bodies. What would happen when unfettered powers and technology tools are at their disposal? It’s no secret how in the past political content has been blocked under the garb of national security. If filters are introduced, who is to know – leave alone check – what is taken down in the name of anti-Islamic and ‘immoral’ content. And what happens to all communication online, that is left open for anybody to scour.

This is the first time a reasoned discourse has taken place – and the court has provided the platform where that could happen. Where else will government officials be in a position to come face-to-face with civil society counterparts, and actually listen – even if not heed – to what they say. But now it is for the top officials of the bureaucracy to adopt a more multi-stakeholder and participatory approach. It won’t be enough to issue statements and remain disconnected from the proceedings. The matter needs to be resolved by taking into account views of all stakeholders instead of making decisions unilaterally.

See also an op-ed written for the Express Tribune: Why Filtering the Internet is a Bad Idea

The Ministry of Information, Technology & Telecom (MoIT) in Pakistan was actively considering filtering softwares as a solution to unban YouTube. According to reports, these filters are already in place. This, to them, is the ultimate solution to all evil that exists on the Internet. Why is that a big deal? Well, for one, it is a direct infringement on my constitutional right to privacy. Let’s talk about how.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that the world we are living in currently now is called ‘the Internet.’ Similar to that what we see in the Matrix or Tron Legacy. Let’s say that when you step outside of your house to run a few errands, you’re followed by a faceless individual who keeps track of every move you make. How many steps you took to get into your car, where you’re going, what you purchased, how much you spent in your purchase, the route you took on your way back home, what time you walked back into your house. EVERY move you make is documented and watched. We would feel oddly threatened, our liberty and freedom of movement compromised, and I would not feel comfortable living in such a situation. I would do all I could to break free from such a hostile living environment.

Translate this to our life on the Internet. Filters, especially those that do away with HTTPS, do away with secure protocols that ensure communication is encrypted and only accessible to the intended recipient, not anyone along the way. If this is done away with, or tampered with, it would mean all our emails, Skype conversations, purchases on Amazon, every move we make online will be or is already being documented and tracked – by the state and whoever else has access. Why would the state be interested in knowing that I purchased the latest copy of Robert Jordan’s book online? Why must I divulge the private conversations I have with my friends on Facebook? Would the state consider that as a source of gathering intelligence? How much intelligence would they precisely gather when my friends and I talk about how we unabashedly wept during Marley & Me?

Another question arises. What of those pages which clearly state that the connections over which they are being transmitted are secure? Amazon, for example, when you’re about to make a purchase which involves you putting in your credit card information. What about those banking websites which allow you to make transactions online? Does that mean that with these filtering-cum-monitoring softwares, the government will be able to track my personal finances too? The answer to these questions unfortunately, is yes.

When you go onto websites, for example, while I write this article, I’m listening to music on Soundcloud with the link on the address bar appearing as, “https://soundcloud.com/”, the HTTPS implies a secure connection. The “S” is the clue. If and where the HTTPS appears to be green on your address bar, the connection is untampered and secure. It has not been broken anywhere. Where the link on the address bar starts with “HTTP”, that is not a secure connection and can be easily intercepted. All banking websites and social networking websites operate on an HTTPS protocol which makes it difficult – nigh near impossible – for third parties to be privy to personal communication and information. In fact the State Bank has even upgraded to TLS.

So how can filters enable snooping? This is where Man-In-The-Middle attacks come in. What are MITM attacks? Let’s say you’re calling a person you haven’t ever spoken to before, for the first time on the telephone for something as harmless as a reservation at a restaurant. Someone picks up your call, you believe this person to be a representative at the restaurant. Simultaneously, the restaurant receives a call from someone pretending to be you. They give your information to the person at the other end, whereas a completely different person, after listening to everything you have said, passes on that information to the restaurant. You hang up the phone believing it is the restaurant you have spoken to, not suspecting that someone else, someone completely unknown to you, has noted down everything you have said. With HTTPS connections, MITM attacks are the only way around and filters would have to employ this deceitful method to block.

A point that may or may not be appropriate to mention here is that I love travelling. It proves to be quite a harrowing experience with me clutching that green passport. I’m subjected to a number of oddly violating security checks. My most recent trip was to Bangkok, where everyday I would come across a temple right outside one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls. I would always look at the temple-goers respectfully. Does my walking in front of a temple and respecting the beliefs of others make me a bad Muslim? Does the choice I made secure my eternal damnation? I’d like to think not. Why? Because like everything in this world, God gave me a choice and the capacity to choose what’s best for me. And I chose to bow down in front of the Ka’bah.

If I were a perfect rendition of our government, I would not just cease to walk in front of that mall, I would never set foot in Thailand ever again. In fact, I would never set foot in any country in South East Asia. Makes perfect sense. Perhaps when they see that I’m not travelling to their country, when they see that one empty seat on the airplane which would otherwise be occupied by me, they would mend their ways and go to a mosque instead of a temple. Sounds like an excellent plan.

By that logic, the government should revoke diplomatic ties with all non-Muslim states, confiscate everyone’s passports lest they attempt to enter any country. Pakistan International Airlines should stop operating flights land to countries that are not Islamic. Each and every politician who holds a British or an American passport should relinquish his/her dual nationality because British and Americans are predominantly non-Muslims.

What the champions of the Muslim faith do not realize is that every choice we make is a test of a certain degree. A test to affirm our belief in our religion. If I’m surrounded by individuals sipping on alcohol, would I conform? If everyone around me is munching on bacon, would I do the same? If adultery is considered a social norm, would I do it as well? The answer to these questions, is between God and me and not between me and His creations. The aforementioned things can be found in abundance or are being practiced openly in the land of the pure that is Pakistan. The real test is whether we choose to do them or not.

Similarly, YouTube, a global video-sharing website hosts all kinds of content. And as I write this, I’ve clicked on a video that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed by a page called, “The Deen Show,” which is all about Islam and answering questions about religion. It directed me to a link on YouTube, but alas! I cannot access it. By the very same logic that has been applied by our government in restricting access to YouTube, their moral filters prevent me from accessing such religious and Islamic videos. Is that also blasphemy?

The question that I put forward is why the State is being allowed to make decisions for me? Why are choices being eliminated from the public? If the video is blasphemous then why would a country that is populated by such pious Muslims ever, consciously search for the video and watch it? It must be understood that YouTube has numerous videos and unless explicitly searched for, no video will simply appear. Why deprive the populace of this the video-sharing website who utilized this platform for purposes which I assure you do not include watching this particular video.

The verdict lies in the element of choice. The freedom to choose. If a person is as pious as they perceive themselves to be then they will not, out of conscious reverence, search for that video and watch it. If some do, then that matter is between God and themselves. We are neither religious nor moral champions to make decisions for others.

US court directs Google to remove Innocence of Muslims video based on the copyright claim by the actress

A US appeals court in San Francisco has directed Google to remove Innocence of Muslims video on copyright grounds based on plea made by actress Cindy Lee Garcia. The actress claimed she was ‘duped’ into appearing in the video, was unaware of the content, had not signed release orders, and received threats after it was uploaded. The basis of her argument is copyright ownership of the video due to her appearance in it, which the court has upheld.

[Read more details about the claim by the film's cast - claims from the crew were reported shortly after the video was released on YouTube here]

Ruling on copyright, not film content

Unlike how this is being perceived in Pakistan, the court’s ruling has nothing to do with the content of the video but a copyright claim made by the actress. The takedown directions are rooted in US local law and its interpretation of a copyright claim on a video.

Given that this is an appeals court ruling, it may not be long-lasting, and can be challenged or overturned in a higher court.

Removal on YouTube.com vs localized versions

The video, Innocence of Muslims, was the cause of much protest and violence in various countries, including Pakistan. Different solutions were adopted in different countries where the video was the cause of much angst.

All content-based requests – including that by the US government – to remove the video on YouTube.com were turned down by Google as the video did not meet the takedown criteria based on its community guidelines. In countries where localized versions of YouTube existed (e.g. country-specific domains), access to the video was restricted at the country-domain level in compliance with local laws. In countries, such as Bangladesh, where a localized YouTube does not exist, Google applied interstitial screens before the video – a disclaimer saying the video contains material that may be offensive to viewers in the country. Following this, Bangladesh reversed the ban on YouTube.

Following the Bangladesh example and in response to protests, Google placed interstitial on the video globally. While the Pakistan government was offered interstitials too, it chose to pursue demands for localization even though that was not on the table for the video in question

[Read Google's letter to the court explaining this here].

YouTube remains blocked in Pakistan.

As per the US court’s directions, Google has been directed to remove this video from YouTube and all Google platforms. No other country’s court can exercise the same jurisdiction over the company (for .com) as it is registered in the US and thus bound by US law. The video has reportedly been removed globally.

What does this mean for Pakistan?

Pakistan remains the only country in the world that still has YouTube blocked due to the video in question.  The ban was imposed in September 2012, during the tenure of the PPP government. In 2014, the ban continues under the PML-N leadership.

For the past year-and-a-half, authorities have cited the video on YouTube as the reason for the continued ban. In December 2012, YouTube was unblocked for roughly an hour, before news reports regarding the availability of the video surfaced, resulting in the ban being imposed again. Given that the video was cited as the reason for the ban, there is no reason for it to remain in place anymore.

The court and the Senate were leaning towards the restoration of the video-sharing platform, even before the surfacing of this news. There has been great debate in the court and more recently in the Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights on the issue of not just YouTube, but the nature of the Internet and approaches to what is ‘objectionable’ while preserving citizens’ right to access.

[See Bolo Bhi's timeline on YouTube Court Case Updates]

Last week, the PTA Chairman informed the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights that opening YouTube was a political decision. If PTA was directed to unblock it, it would. He added that there was no way to absolutely block content. However, he mentioned that interstitial screens can be set up, and this is something Google has done for content PTA has reported to it. The same had been voiced in court in the middle of last year.

Both the court and senators were of the view that a lot of useful content was being blocked due to one video, a solution which could easily be achieved through self-regulation or interstitial screens.

[See LHC's interim order in YouTube Case 2013]

It is important to remember that the issue here is not just YouTube but a much broader debate about the right to information and open access. Since reports regarding the possible removal of the video have emerged, we along with many others have called for the reversal of the ban, which comes with the risk that it may overlook the need to push for more accountability, increased access to information and level-headed policymaking.

Will the Ministry of IT not act even now so this issue can be resolved once and for all?

Published in the January 2014 edition of the All Pakistan Law Decisions Journal Section, “Why the YouTube Ban is Illegal and Undesirable” by lawyer Babar Sattar, discusses the legality of the YouTube ban and actions of authorities involved, including their mandate and role. It discusses how their actions correspond with fundamental rights – or don’t – and the balance that needs to be struck.

The following areas are addressed in greater detail:

Legality of Government’s Direction to Block Access to YouTube

The Test of Reasonableness and Striking the Right Balance Between Competing Rights

Internet, Information Age and Moral Panic

Guarding Moral Virtue vs Maintaining Public Order

Download PLD scanned version here:  “Why the YouTube Ban is Illegal and Undesirable”

Clear copy here

Watch Bolo Bhi’s video interview with Babar Sattar on this here: Internet Censorship, Law and Fundamental Rights

Taking cue from the brilliant team at Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Bolo Bhi team has come up with a scorecard for State Minister for Information Technology & Telecom, Ms Anusha Rahman Khan. The scorecard is based on the performance of key duties by the Minister in her first six months in office.  The collective score is based on input by industry and civil society members.

 

Criteria For Each Duty:

0-3: Showed effort

4-7: Followed through

8-10: Led to outcome

 

 

AnushascoreCardfinal 395x1024  State Minister Anusha Rahmans First Six Months in Office: A Performa

 

 

1. Fulfilled promises made as a member NA standing committee on IT

In the previous government, Ms Anusha Rahman Khan, was one of the most vocal members of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology. During her tenure as a parliamentarian, Ms Rahman spoke for the need to increase access to information, unblock YouTube and issue 3G licenses.

She was also involved in a series of discussions on proposed amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Crime Ordinance (PECO). Despite displaying an understanding of information technology issues, then, Ms Rahman’s time in office has hardly been reflective of the same zeal to resolve issues effectively.

2. Accessibility as a public official

Speak to people within the industry, and they will tell you the Minister just doesn’t respond to letters or emails. We’ve found that to be true as well. According to them, the few meetings that were held initially led to no results as their input was never considered seriously. It has become very apparent since, that input of stakeholders is of little or no importance. Instead, handpicked experts and their input carries more weight. Surprisingly, this has not only been noted by people within industry or civil society, but also fellow politicians and parliamentarians, who also say they’ve been given the cold shoulder.

3. Restoration of YouTube

Beginning with the announcement that we can block Google on her first day of office (allegedly misreported), to introducing filters to block content and eventually trying to go the localization route, the Minister has made various speeches in the Senate on this subject and issued press statements. However, to date no concrete measures have been taken to resolve the issue. All proposed solutions have been out of line with the direction the court has taken on the issue. In fact, despite being summoned multiple times, the Minister did not appear in court. Initially, even Google officials were given the cold shoulder, by the Minister and Ministry, with refusals to talk or meet. As for independent input, it has been completely shunned. Repeated attempts to apprise the Minister of the intricacies of the issue have been met with a stony silence.

4. Adoption of 3G Technology

Recent reports suggest that the government will hold the 3G auction in March 2014. The auction and issuance of 3G licenses is a matter that has been pending since 2008. Other than discussions and field visits since the beginning of the term at the Ministry, not much has been done. It was only after the Supreme Court, hearing a writ petition for early auctioning of 3G licenses, issued directions to the government to be quick about the appointment of PTA officials, that this matter moved along. Whether the Information Memorandum will be completed in time, and the auction held in March, now remains to be seen.

5. Increase Internet Penetration in underserved areas

In a surprise move, rather than utilizing National R&D (Research and Development) Funds and USF (Universal Services Fund) money to increase telecommunications and Internet penetration in the country, these funds – amounting in billions of rupees – were consolidated and moved out of accounts maintained separately for them. While these funds had been lying unused for quite a while, industry personnel argue the right thing to do was to utilize and spend them in underserved areas to improve infrastructure, etc. as opposed to housing them under the Ministry of Finance and putting them towards the paying off of circular debt. It must be noted that no efforts to better the existing infrastructure, either through policy or otherwise have been made.

6. Disclosure on filtering & surveillance equipment

Ever since the announcement that PTCL was ‘loaning’ the Ministry filters to block content, followed by a statement maintaining filters were not the solution, there has been no disclosure by the Ministry as to what has happened to these filters that were acquired. Not only that, but through what process they were acquired, at what cost, and what has been done with them; all these questions remain unanswered. There remains also no acknowledgment or clarification to date of the alleged presence of FinFisher control and command servers and Netsweeper in Pakistan.

7. Headway on Stakeholder Draft of E-crime Legislation

For quite some time now, there has been a fair amount of back and forth between the Ministry and stakeholders on the amendments to what was previously PECO (Pakistan Electronic Crimes Ordinance). Through multi-stakeholder input, various meetings with the previous Standing Committee on IT and even more meetings with the current Minister and Ministry officials, the PECB (Pakistan Electronic Crimes Bill) 2014 still has a long way to go it seems. After near unanimous approval of the draft by stakeholders, the Ministry allegedly decided to dish out some $20,000, it is said, to appoint an international expert to point out why the proposed legislation would not work.

Will this piece of legislation see the light of day, or will a government draft make it into law, remains to be seen. The Prime Minister’s office commissioned its own version of a cybercrime law – which has been criticized heavily for lack of safeguards and knowledge of technology. Why the wastage of funds and efforts when there already exists a piece of legislation that has been debated to no end?

What kind of coordination is there between the Ministry of IT and the PM’s office?

8. Headway on Privacy Legislation

According to the Constitution of 1973, the right to privacy is an inviolable right. Despite that, Pakistan still lacks laws that protect citizens’ right to privacy. An effective legislation that will help minimize monitoring by the government, regulate surveillance by corporates and ensure that personal information of citizens’ is properly protected remains missing. Despite Snowden revelations, the authorities have not shown any commitment to protect personal data of citizens. In the past year, legislations such as the ‘Investigation for Fair Trial Act’ have been given a clean chit by the National Assembly and the Senate, further increasing the risk of legitimizing blanket surveillance by law-enforcement agencies, without accountability.

Comments: As someone everyone had high hopes from, the Minister has only disappointed. A month or two ago, many were still willing to give the Minister a chance. Yet, with every statement and action, the Minister only sunk their hopes of betterment. Bring up the Minister in conversation now, and there is a decided tone one hears, of utter frustration and anger. As a public official, she is expected to be more approachable.

It is pertinent to mention that be it over the blocking of YouTube, issuance of 3G licenses, spectrum allocation and use or relocating of USF/R&D funds, the government has been dragged into court for either non-responsiveness or contestable policies. A clear indication that nothing is right with policy-making or the approach towards it in this sector.

Going forward, what is expected of the Minister is to take seriously those outside the immediate bureaucratic and political circles. There is a lot of valuable input that has and can be provided further on issues of vital importance to industry and citizens. They deserve a hearing, and that input  needs to be factored into policy.

 

In the last two years the government of Pakistan has suspended cellular services over a dozen times. In 2012, we began recording every instance of cellular service suspension or each time a notification was issued.   The timeline contains dates with links to media reports detailing reasons provided for the blockade. The timeline demonstrates that while in 2012 there were various instances of cellular service suspension, in 2013 with the new government this changed slightly. For instance, unlike in 2012 cellular services were not suspended on the occasion of Eid in 2013. The timeline below mentions various other instances of cellular service suspension.

For more clarity on the issue, we began conducting a survey as an attempt to gauge the human cost of communications blockade. The ongoing survey currently has 152 responses, from both online and offline sources.

Do you think suspension of cellular services is necessary as a measure of security?

 Survey: The Human Cost Of Communications Blockade
Yes 19 13%
No 60 39%
Sometimes 62 41%
Other 11 7%

Out of the 152 people surveyed, which include street vendors, shopkeepers, students and business owners 41% said they believe that suspension of cellular services is “sometimes” a necessary measure for security, while 39% did not believe it was necessary and  a total of 13% believed suspension was necessary as a measure of security.

Are you able to use alternative methods of communications during the ban on mobile services?

 Survey: The Human Cost Of Communications Blockade
Yes 127 84%
No 25 16%

 

One of the biggest arguments against cellular services suspension is that terrorists are able to communicate and carry out their activities regardless and that it ends up impacting citizens instead. Through the survey we asked citizens how easy or difficult it was to communicate during a blockade, while 84% said they were able to use alternative methods of communication 84%, of those interviewed, suggested it was not as effective a measure of communication. 16%, of those surveyed, said they did not have any method of communication during the blockade, important to note that the 100% of all the street vendors, shopkeepers and small business owners  interviewed said they had no  alternate method of  communication, suggesting that while those with internet access are able to carry about their work, albeit with difficulty, it is those with already limited access that suffer the most.

 

Are these alternative methods of communications as effective as cellular services?

 Survey: The Human Cost Of Communications Blockade
Yes 24 16%
No 127 84%
Overall, 63% percent said that cellular service suspension impacted them both personally and professionally, with 20% stating they were only personally impacted, 14% impacted professionally and 3% stated they were not at all impacted from cellular service suspension.
*Please note: An earlier version of the form did not include the  ”not at all” option, it was included within the next hour and answers manually added to the survey to ensure accuracy.

Does suspension of cellular services impact you?

 Survey: The Human Cost Of Communications Blockade
Personally 34 20%
Professionally 23 14%
Both 106 63%
Not At All 5 3%

 

In addition to the survey questions, we asked people to describe briefly how they were impacted by these bans, in order to tell the story of how policies impact people directly. The answers have ranged from serious medical emergencies to fatal hit for small business owners, some of which rely heavily on communication. For instance, interviews with street vendors revealed their work for the day is completely halted owing to the nature of their work, laborers on daily wages were unable to communicate with their employers, small shop owners said they had serious problems with communication with their suppliers, street vendors expressed the same frustration.  We are keeping the survey open for voting, to allow a larger number of people to help us determine the human cost of communications blockade.

You can take the survey below:

 

This is a living document, we will be adding more details and examples to it on an ongoing basis. The study is intended to compare the laws between the two countries and look at some of the success stories.

 

photo 5 225x300 Crowdsourcing censorship: PTA Stepping Up Content Blocking In Pakistan

 

In a newspaper ad published today, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority issued a public notice mainly advertising their complaint cell & asking users report URLs containing content that falls under the category of ”pornography, blasphemy & religious abuse..”. As the ad suggests the complaint cell was established in 2006 & has been functional since. The ad in itself showcases the deeply flawed state of Internet policy in Pakistan.

By suggesting that PTA takes up complaints by users and processes it for blocking, the PTA suggests it is bypassing the “apparent procedure of the inter-ministerial committee..”. For the past many years all criticism of increasing censorship has met with the same explanations cum excuses of a “standard interminstrial procedure”. The official statements remain that ad-hoc blocking of content does not take place & websites are only blocked as & when ordered through an interministerial  board. There are innumerable examples to prove otherwise & the recent ad by the PTA is just one. More interestingly, through this ad the PTA has also coined a new term “religious abuse” which is as vague and prone to abuse as other reasons cited for curbing access online. Moreover, it is not surprising that complaint cell does not speak of over regulation & censorship and has not advertised for users to register complaints about websites that have been censored in Pakistan.

PTA’s recent attempt is reminiscent of a China-like censorship model where internet users are encouraged to report content directly to the regulator. Just last year the government floated a tender to build a china-like firewall in Pakistan and have routinely cited China as a great example of “internet regulation”. Important to point out that the PTA is not alone in chiming the china model, this has been echoed through the Ministry of IT and various policymakers several times. Reflecting a clear disregard and understanding of internet governance and net neutrality.

Here are a few questions for the PTA:

- According to the ad, the complaint cell processes and blocks URL reported, does that negate PTA’s earlier stance that it is just a regulatory body, not responsible for policy issues?

- Mandates available publicly suggest MOIT is responsible for policy decisions, is the complaint cell surpassing “processes” to directly “process” complaints received by the public?

- Who decides what is religious abuse or blasphemy, if a crowd has to make the decision, should that mean laws become irrelevant?

- What about increasing curbs on political speech & dissent? Where does a user report blocking of access to information?

- Lastly, should content deemed indecent for a group of families mean it should be blocked for the entire country?

Instead of investing on increasing access to information, innovation & technology for transparency, the government of Pakistan remains focused on limiting access to information and allows for constitutional rights to be ridiculed and surpassed. The ad is but a mockery of an already flawed system that runs at the whims of those in the corridors of power.

 

PS: What the PTA should have said

photo 51 225x300 Crowdsourcing censorship: PTA Stepping Up Content Blocking In Pakistan