Social media now forms an integral part of our life. We trust our intimate secrets to a faceless server and expect that our content, be it pictures, text, or anything else will be protected by the strictest privacy firewalls. We expect that the individual for whom the content is intended, the “audience”, will only be the people we choose to share information with, and no other person or party will be able to view that content. However, the recent Snowden revelations only reaffirmed that our content is far from secure. There had been considerable criticism that Facebook, entrusted with the data of millions of individuals around the globe, was selling user data to advertising companies to make targeted advertising campaigns. Our lives were and continue to be documented, behavioral patterns decoded and other such information being deduced from our online activity. Mark Zuckerburg himself stated in an interview with TechCrunch founder, Michael Arrington, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” The social norm being that privacy is now an outdated concept.

The above notion is debatable as Edward Snowden unleashed a barrage of information which defeated the aforementioned statement regarding privacy. Though the NSA remains the main culprit, have we ever cast the light of the interrogation lamp onto an organization which allows the NSA access to data, organized, efficient, and ripe for spying? A quick reading of the Facebook Data Use Policy confirmed my worst fears. Not only is our content accessible to the organization and stored, but the information we would ordinarily choose not to give out is ‘received’ by the social media giant. The Data Use Policy (which can be accessed here) clearly states:

When you post things like photos or videos on Facebook, we may receive additional related data (or metadata), such as the time, date, and place you took the photo or video.”

Being a law student, I must applaud the apparent ambiguity and the clever draftsmanship of the above statement. The condition does not say with absolute certainty that Facebook will receive the information and that it will be stored. Just that it MAY receive background information pertaining to the content I upload. Moreover, Facebook does not concede that the information that it does receive will be stored and used for an advertising stream, tailored to your activity on the social platform. But for now, I feel a bit at peace knowing that extremely personal information such as my location or my electronic devices is still in my control.

Oh wait.

“We receive data from or about the computer, mobile phone, or other devices you use to install Facebook apps or to access Facebook, including when multiple users log in from the same device. This may include network and communication information, such as your IP address or mobile phone number, and other information about things like your internet service, operating system, location, the type (including identifiers) of the device or browser you use, or the pages you visit. For example, we may get your GPS or other location information so we can tell you if any of your friends are nearby, or we could request device information to improve how our apps work on your device.”

Before I comment on the apparent breach of privacy which this policy entails, I would like to convey my gratitude to Facebook. Thank you for being clear on one aspect: Facebook does indeed collect information, store it and extends the same information to advertisers and vendors to advertise products and services. Facebook has now become a massive catalogue of identities, but a collection of whole individuals whose lives are on social media. This begs the question as to why Facebook must collect this information. By using our location, time, date and other intrinsic information attached to any content that we upload onto the social media platform, we are unknowingly conceding to information that we may not feel comfortable in knowing that we are providing. Perhaps we must read the Terms and Conditions of Facebook before we accept them blindly to succumb to the pressure of having a presence on social media.

It is imperative to note that Facebook receives information every time someone logs onto their profile, the device from which they log in, their IP address and if their device has GPS enabled, their location. But the GPS location is not as important as a person’s exact location can be triangulated by using the IP address from which a person is on Facebook. The social media giant brazenly mentions that through this information, they can tell you if any of my friends are nearby and other information which they’ve categorized as necessary for “the general improvement of Facebook”.

The one thing which caught my eye was the manner in which third parties have the capability to view data. The Data Use Policy clearly states that they sometimes receive information from third party organizations and advertising partners. Essentially, what this implies is that if I were to click on a Facebook ad which lead me to a different website advertising a certain product or service, the data pertaining to me clicking that ad includes, but is not restricted to time and date of the clicking, the location of the ad, and outlay. This information, once received by Facebook is then doctored to ensure maximum clicks.

Some may argue that Facebook is well within their rights to advertise products and/or services depending upon our search history. After all, they are not a charitable organization providing a service. They are in this business to make themselves self-sustaining and to reap profits and the only manner in which they can do that is by leasing out space on their servers to advertisers. However, I personally would feel uncomfortable knowing that every keyword I’ve ever searched with is documented and used to advertise products and/or services. I do not feel comfortable knowing that a nameless and faceless individual within the scores of Facebook employees is aware that I have logged in on my Facebook and am currently reading a colleague’s status on his timeline. I do not feel comfortable with the knowledge that every time I click, “Login”, my IP address and my exact location is stored on the Facebook servers. Perhaps it was through this mechanism of storing IP addresses that individuals preaching anti-state propaganda was apprehended and persecuted in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Perhaps it is through the scores of information available on Facebook servers that the NSA can keep tabs on individuals and their activities online, as their activities on the web are a reflection of their day to day tasks.

The general populace is unaware of something which is completely black and white. I do not feel comfortable knowing that my content, my location and other increasingly personal information is free to be pursued by individuals to whom I have not given consent. Perhaps by agreeing to their terms and conditions and their Data Use Policy, I have conceded to that. However, it was only for the purpose of this article that I bothered to read Facebook’s policies and Community Safety Guidelines. How many other individuals have made the conscious effort to do so? The answer to that would be startlingly few. And that thought, that individuals around us are now being treated as numbers and as data in cyberspace is, quite frankly, scary.

Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a  collaborative venture by law school clinics and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that collects and analyzes legal complaints about online activity, posted online five requests made to Twitter by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). 

The requests were made between May 5-14, 2014 and cite the Pakistan Penal Code as legal justification for content removal. These requests were entertained as per Twitter’s ‘Country Withheld Content’ tool , which entertains requests from government and law enforcement agencies to have potentially illegal content and accounts removed or restricted in the country making the request.

The question that then must be asked is of the legitimacy of the requests forwarded by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The PTA, in accordance with Section 5 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Re-Organization Act 1996 (amended 2005) is a body established to regulate licenses and workings of telecommunication services and systems. The Act does not in any form give PTA the authority to arbitrarily restrict content on the Internet. Section 8 of the Act allows the Federal Government to authorize the PTA to take or implement certain policy decisions; however, content removal, whether by itself or through another, is beyond the ambit of powers of the PTA or of any government authority for that matter.

PTA has gone on record to say previously – in court and the media – that it is the IMCEW’s (Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites) directives it follows vis a vis restriction of access or content online. As a regulator, it says it does what is directed to do.

If there was federal authorisation for these requests, then in the interest of transparency, the relevant bodies should make public the legal process followed to route these requests. Who initiated the complaint, where was the complaint made, who forwarded it and what law specifically was cited for removal.

It is pertinent to highlight that Pakistan does not have cyber laws or any clearly defined policy that applies to the Internet. No specific protections exist in law that support user privacy and citizens’ right to information.  In the past, content has been blocked in an ad hoc manner. A lot of political dissent has been blocked under the garb of blocking anti-religious or anti-national content, disregarding citizens’ right to information and the need for transparency and accountability.

Twitter’s ‘Country Withheld Tool,’ while seeking to facilitate the manner in which governments make requests, is worrisome for citizens in countries where no transparent and legal processes exist for access and content on the Internet. Over the last few years, various authorities have arbitrarily blocked and censored the Internet, not over ‘illegal’ content, but to suppress political dissent. The process by which requests from governments are entertained by Twitter must also be made public knowledge. What is considered a valid complaint, through what process and policy?

Speedy compliance without this information being placed on public record sets a dangerous precedent and hampers efforts of those seeking to limit censorship on the Internet in Pakistan.  Government authorities have routinely cited Facebook’s speedy compliance with take down requests as a justification to continue the ban on YouTube, and it appears as though Twitter is joining that league requiring little in way of due process to comply with requests.

Watch Barrister Babar Sattar’s Legal Analysis regarding Internet Policy, Law & Fundamental Rights



In 1994, when the internet age arrived in China, President Jiang Zemin believed that the world was moving towards a new age where technology and information would be of utmost importance and would provide the impetus for progress. That acted as an incentive to begin incorporating technology to uplift China’s booming economy. But as Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s Eight Elders once famously said, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” In order to keep these “flies” out of China, its leaders began to develop the Golden Shield Project in 1998, which  was unveiled in 2000 and implemented in 2006.

This project of massive surveillance and censorship started out as an attempt to maintain records of citizens and control content. It however, quickly spiraled into a mass surveillance and control mechanism for citizens of China, thus earning the nickname; “The Great Firewall of China.”

Today, the state of Chinese netizens is deplorable. Companies practice self-censorship out of fear of being shut down by authorities if they fail to comply with the strict laws on censorship. Citizens cannot access many websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, DropBox, and Twitter, and even the TOR browser has been blocked. Website activity and telephone conversations are monitored to ensure that censored words such as “protest” are not being used (even Shakespeare is not exempted).

Websites such as Google are censored to the point that if Chinese citizens search for Tiananmen Square, they won’t see any images or links related to the massacre of 1989 but only tourist images of the Square itself. Books, articles, and films related to the massacre have been completely censored as well. Several activists and journalists have been arrested for even referring to the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre over email. In 2012, the Chinese authorities also started to block Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that allowed citizens to access blocked websites.

In June 2013, The Guardian began publishing a series of articles that revealed how the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) was spying on Americans and foreign citizens using programs such as PRISM, which collected information including search history, web-chat, and emails, as well as collecting phone data.  According to a detailed report in The Guardian, “The NSA had secretly attached intercepts to the undersea fibre optic cables that ringed the world. This allowed them to read much of the globe’s communications. All of Silicon Valley was involved Google, Microsoft, Facebook, even Steve Jobs’s Apple. It had even put secret back doors into online encryption software – used to make secure bank payments – weakening the system for everybody. The spy agencies had hijacked the internet.”

The surveillance was not  limited to possible criminals or people with links to terrorist organizations- as whistleblower Edward Snowden explained in his first public  interview for The Guardian, “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded…it’s getting to the point where you don’t even have to have done anything wrong, you only have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made…attack you on that basis…and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

Globally, China is seen as a repressive state with limited, if any freedom. America, while criticized for many reasons, is largely perceived as a liberated country, and it’s people’s freedoms are idealized a great deal. American society is also shifting towards a more egalitarian model, with various individuals and organizations battling for gender and racial equality.  But a mostly liberated public and fundamental human rights are clearly not mutually inclusive for the American Government, given  the state is carrying out extensive surveillance, not just on its own citizens, but foreign countries as well.

In Pakistan, censorship began as early as 2006, when the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA)  began aggressively blocking websites that were deemed to have objectionable, immoral or blasphemous material.  In 2012, reports emerged claiming that the PTA was pursuing a URL-filtering system whereby, instead of blocking websites on an IP level they could simply target specific URLs (including ones within websites).

While, the YouTube ban is still in place since 2012, in late 2013, the Sindh government attempted to ban Viber, Whatsapp, Skype, and other chat applications for a period of three months claiming national security concerns. While the Sindh government did not go ahead with the plan amid backlash from users, it is an alarming notion that they would  consider limiting the ways in which people communicate.

Pakistan, like China, longed to ban the use of VPNs. Earlier this year, PTA began a crackdown on VPNs in the garb of “curbing grey traffic”. This began with banning SpotFlux, and gradually moved on to other VPNs such as HotSpot Shield and CyberGhost, which meant that netizens could no longer access YouTube, unless they used proxies.  (Read our post on VPN blocking in Pakistan)

While Pakistan may lack the technological sophistication that United States has at its disposal, it is clear that for a long time, Pakistan has been greatly inspired by China’s censorship policies. The ban on YouTube, and previous short-lived bans on social networking websites Facebook and Twitter, as well as the surveillance technology FinFisher and URL-filtering and blocking software Netsweeper, are reminiscent of the many ways in which China carries out its censorship and surveillance. In fact, in late April 2014, PTCL partnered with Dailymotion to bring the website to Pakistan. This is no different from what China has done, blocking websites such as YouTube to replace them with its own YouKu, Sina Weibo as a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, and even localized search engines.

The political condition in China, when it began to implement its repressive policies, and of Pakistan in the past decade is largely different. China’s oppressive regime has been silencing its people with brutality and censorship long before the internet was created.

Individuals and organizations are comparatively freer to criticize government censorship in Pakistan, and yet they are still living with partial censorship. The government still shows a lack of interest in removing the YouTube ban despite vocal opposition from civil society. PTA has gone on record to state that it does not conduct surveillance, despite the presence of Finfisher servers in Pakistan. It is also quite clear that the government, especially the Ministry is not consulting with civil society activists and organizations and thus, operating under willful ignorance.

The comparison between the digital landscapes in Pakistan and the repressive conditions in China are valid, and much-needed. The image is bleak, but needed to reflect where we are headed in terms of digital privacy and access to information.  Pakistan could replicate the Chinese model of censorship in efforts to govern the internet, and that is something that cannot be allowed to happen.


The Sindh Assembly unanimously passed “The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013,” into law, thereby repealing the 1929 Child Protection Act and becoming the first province to legislate on child marriages in Pakistan. Sharmila Faruqi (Pakistan’s People’s Party – PPP) presented the private Act in the Provincial Assembly. The Act fixes the age of marriage at a minimum of 18 for both males and females, along with increasing fines and imprisonment time levied upon those who violate the Act.

 The law states that, “the provisions of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, relating to the Province of Sindh are hereby repealed”, continuing, “an offense punishable under this Act shall be cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable.”

 Sindh Minister for Social Development Rubina Qaimkhani (PPP) welcomed the passing of the Act and appreciated lawmakers for their support. She further identified that early marriage for females leads to the negative implications on their future.

 This move comes after the Council of Islamic Ideology declared the clause prohibiting child marriage in Pakistan’s marriage laws were un-Islamic, and children of any age could be married upon puberty. This created an uproar amongst civil society and was heavily criticized in the SenateSenate, where Senator Farhatullah Babar stated that the Council of Islamic Ideology was in fact strengthening the narrative of the Taliban by justifying child marriages. He cited that this move shows an increase in extremism in the country (See Bolo Bhi’s timeline on child marriage.)

This new law is an important success for civil liberties, however, the leniency of a three-year-imprisonment for parties involved in child marriage must be criticized, given that the sentence can be commuted to shorter imprisonment. More importantly, in many cases, laws passed for the protection of children are not implemented effectively, and crimes against children have continued to rise. The Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, 2011 is a law that, if implemented effectively, calls to establish child protection units across the province, where child protection officers can take children into protective custody until receiving appropriate orders by relevant authorities for protecting the child in question. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa passed the Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2010 into law which criminalized various offenses such as pornography and sexual exploitation and also addressed the privacy of “child at risk”, with a fine of PKR. 10,000 (USD$101) for violators of the provision. On the other hand, the Balochistan Child Protection and Welfare Bill has been pending since 2011, and Punjab is still in the process of formulating a child welfare policy.

 Despite legal improvements, children’s rights continue to be violated. According to Sahil, a child-rights NGO, an astounding number of 3002 cases of sexual abuse were reported in 2013, which is a 7.6% increase from the previous year. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) reported that in 2013, an estimated 300-700 Christian and Hindu women became victims of forced conversions to Islam, and were subjected to abuse, with some of them forced into prostitution. Child marriage is only one aspect of abuse and the exploitation of children, which young girls are particularly subjected to. In fact, according to Sahil’s 2013 report on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) child marriage saw an increase of 21% last year.

As laudable as the passing of The Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2013 is, the implementation of this law still remains to be seen. The provincial government must focus on launching awareness-building campaigns on child marriages and child sexual abuse and encourage community members to protect children by contacting the relevant authorities if they suspect that a child is being abused. Existing laws need to be implemented in order to truly counter child sexual abuse. Similarly, other provinces need to follow Sindh’s example by enacting laws protecting children from child marriages, sexual abuse, and commercial exploitation, and dedicate far more resources to implement said laws.

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: (

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, “”, 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 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 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