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

Facebook just published its second transparency report, revealing requests it receives from governments around the world for user data and content removal. The report introduces Facebook’s policy of dealing with government requests as “We respond to valid requests relating to criminal cases. Each and every request we receive is checked for legal sufficiency and we reject or require greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague”.

Between July and December 2013, the Government of Pakistan made a total of 126 requests for user data relating to 163 users or accounts, and Facebook fulfilled 47% of these requests. Moreover, access to content on 162  pages and profiles was restricted.Facebook describes Pakistan’s content restrictions as “content primarily reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications under local laws prohibiting blasphemy and criticism of the state.” Since Facebook states that they check every report for “legal sufficiency”, it is alarming that “criticism of the state” is being listed as prohibited content in Pakistan.

facebook transparency report  1024x559 Facebook Transparency Report: Since When Is Criticism of the State Illegal in Pakistan?

In the past, Facebook pages of groups talking about secularism have reportedly been taken down by Facebook, including the widely read Urdu page “RoshniPK”. Given the history of content removal on Facebook, the recent report raises the following questions:

  • What criticism does the Government of Pakistan consider illegal and prohibited?
  • What laws are being cited by the authorities in Pakistan to make content takedown requests?
  • Regarding account information request, what law is being cited to demand such information?

Pakistan does not have laws that protect privacy of an individual on the internet. Even though the Constitution states privacy as an inviolable right, this is routinely overlooked under the pretext of “national security”.  There is currently no judicial oversight for wiretaps, surveillance and monitoring of content. Moreover, a significant number of Facebook pages inciting violence and hate speech targeted towards non-muslims, certain sects of Islam, atheists, and the military remain accessible. Therefore, it is even more important to ask that precisely what type of content are the authorities targeting? More importantly, the lack of transparency and accountability of the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications must be scrutinized.

 

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

Over the last year, Bolo Bhi has spoken to multiple people – entrepreneurs, startups, industry professionals, legal and technical experts, and policymakers – on the issue of Internet censorship and policymaking in the ICT sector. Find here what they have to say.

Watch Pakistan’s Internet BANwagon a documentary by Bolo Bhi, that features the following:

Pakistan’s Internet BANwagon: A Documentary by Bolo Bhi

View full interviews with those featured below (more to be uploaded soon):

Sidra Qasim & Waqas Ali – Co-founders HomeTown

Mobeen Ansari – Photojournalist

Babar Sattar – Lawyer

Wahaj us Siraj – Convenor ISPAK

Khurram Zafar – Adjunct Faculty ITU

Salman Ansari – IT & Telecom expert

Jehan Ara – President P@SHA 

Mushahid Hussain – Senator (PML-Q)

Dr Farooq Sattar- MNA (MQM)

Bushra Gohar- former MNA (ANP)

 Shireen Mazari – MNA (PTI)

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

As published by Dawn Magazine Special Report on 20th Oct’2013 

Never mind that it is morally wrong. Never mind that it infringes upon people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. Never mind that it is a Canute-like futile attempt to command the tides to turn back. If there is one reason why the government’s attempt to censor the entire internet should be opposed, it is this: it will cost us all — including the government itself — more money than we can imagine.

One is not concerned with the cost of setting up, installing and operating a mass-censorship system and then constantly coming up with up-to-date iterations of it. What should trouble every Pakistani is the massive opportunity cost of never entering the age of Big Data, never fully participating in the era of truly high-speed communication and never partaking in the economic fruits of being fully plugged-in to the ever-regenerating creative engine of wealth that is the internet.

No more speeding

The single biggest way in which censoring the internet imposes a cost on the economy is by the fact that such an attempt would cause overall internet speeds throughout the country to slow down dramatically. In periods of high traffic, some experts estimate that the reduction in speeds could be as high as 75pc, based on the experience of countries like China that have engaged in similar attempts. That may not sound like such a big deal, but in reality it is.

Let’s start with the most obvious examples. There are a large and growing number of technology companies in Pakistan that provide services to clients outside the country, and they rely almost exclusively on the internet to deliver their products and services.

Take Arbisoft, for example. It is a Lahore-based company that provides much of the back-end architecture behind some of the largest websites in the United States. In order to stay in business, Arbisoft needs the ability to transmit large volumes of data at very high speeds to its customers. In theory, such a company can continue doing business even if the internet is censored in Pakistan, but it would then need to pay much higher costs for the high speeds of internet that it needs in order to do business. In effect, its cost of doing business would go up, and may affect its ability to stay profitable.

Job slash

Pakistan’s software industry may be small by global standards, but according to the Pakistan Software Houses Association, it generates upwards of $2b a year in revenues, which is not small given the total size of the economy. It also provides one of the fastest-growing sources of well-paying middle-class jobs for young people, something the country needs far more of. Choking off growth in this industry is tantamount to strangling the nation’s future to death.

But it is not just the tech nerds who need high speed internet. Increasingly, it is going to become a necessity for doing business in virtually all sectors. The requirements of bandwidth in the financial services industry, for instance, are growing rapidly.

More charges

Banks in Pakistan relied on internet-based networks to process 87.5 million transactions worth Rs7.8 trillion in the second quarter of 2013 alone, according to data provided by the State Bank of Pakistan. That number is up nearly 20pc compared to the year before and looks set to continue growing at exponential rates for the foreseeable future, since internet-based transactions still constitute a miniscule fraction of the overall level of transactions in the economy.

Censoring the internet will not cause these transactions to stop, but it will slow them down, and cause the transaction costs associated with adopting more technology to go up. Think higher ATM fees, higher debit card and credit card fees, etc. That, in turn, will dis-incentivise the move towards a more documented economy and thus make it harder to crack down on illicit activities, including tax evasion.

Students suffer

And then there is the economic impact on higher education. Not many people are aware of the fact that the computer labs in all registered universities across the country are actually linked to a single system that the Higher Education Commission uses to provide them with free access to subscription-based journals and other knowledge resources that the government has paid for. Slower internet means a reduced ability of students across the country to collaborate and compete with each other.

In pure economic terms, censoring the internet means slowing down the nation’s pace of progress and making it more expensive for everyone. In a country that already lags behind the rest of the world and has a large population that can barely afford the essentials of life, it seems like an insane policy. But perhaps, for the proponents of the censorship, that is precisely the point. One can only hope that they do not prevail in the end. But this is Pakistan. They probably will.

As published by Dawn Magazine Special Report on 20th Oct’2013 

They say they’re lifting the ban on YouTube. The government has apparently come up with a brilliant plan so that just that silly video, The Innocence of Muslims, is blocked, and we can enjoy the rest of the gazillions of videos in peace. What is this plan? In order to even to begin to tell you about it, I’ll first have to explain how YouTube works.

YouTube, like other more secure websites these days, uses HTTPS instead of HTTP. When you look at the address bar in your browser when you’re at such a website, you’ll probably see a lock symbol and https://yoursiteaddress, rather than the usual http://blahblahblah. What does this mean? When you go to an HTTPS website, there is a certain exchange of certificates between your browser and the server where the site is hosted. Your browser acts a bit like an immigration officer, “May I see your passport, please?” The server says, “Here you go, sir!” And if everything looks ok, your browser allows you to view the site’s contents. These HTTPS certificates are only granted to an extremely limited number of servers across the world, and much like the holographic image on a valid visa on your passport, it would be next to impossible to fake, and all information in such exchanges with HTTPS servers is encrypted.

Now blocking access to an entire website using its root addresses (https://youtube.com, etc.) is one thing, and can be done by our Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But blocking access to a particular video on that site would mean screwing with this hardcore HTTPS protocol. Actually, the method that the ISPs have been using to block our access to YouTube, porn and a lot of sites which nobody has any idea why they have been banned in the first place, already puts our internet privacy at risk. This method allows them to keep track of what and when an internet user accesses on the internet, unless it’s done through HTTPS. And now that we’re moving against an actual HTTPS site, this will only make matters worse!

What options did we have in dealing with this issue?

  1. Unblocking YouTube outright.
  2. Working with Google, YouTube’s parent company, to block access to the video in Pakistan (like Indonesia, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey already have).
  3. Installation of filtering and surveillance software on users’ computers.
  4. A Machine/Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attack.

The case for unblocking

Because of the high number of complaints against this video, YouTube shows its users a notification before allowing them to watch the video. This is explained in the following excerpt from the letter they sent to Mr Yasser Hamdani, the lawyer representing Bytes for All in the Lahore High Court case to unban the site:

“In some cases, content may not breach the global guidelines but may still be flagged as particularly sensitive for some viewers. This is the case, for example, with the Innocence of Muslims video. In this case, we add a warning interstitial page that users see before they accept to continue through to the video itself.

The warning states: “The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive or inappropriate. Viewer discretion is advised”. It was on the basis of this interstitial page that the government of Bangladesh, for example, lifted its earlier ban on YouTube.”

Working with Google

Google has ruled out cooperating in this regard until the company is offered Intermediary Liability Protection (ILP) through a legislative amendment which shields it from any legal repercussions resulting from any user of the website uploading content that’s considered unlawful in Pakistan. Following is the text regarding this issue from the same letter to Mr Hamdani:

“In some countries, YouTube has additional functionality and customisation that allows for the highlighting to users of local content within a country. You can see a list of these countries in the ‘country’ menu at the bottom of a YouTube page. 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.

We have been discussing this in the context of the need for intermediary liability protection for online platforms and a clear notice-and-take-down mechanism in Pakistan to bring these provisions into line with international best practice (such as the OECD guidelines). For example, any notice-and-take-down requirements should be based on legal process, address individual video URLs as opposed to requiring broad general monitoring and pre-emptive removals, and allow for counter-notice from content owners. Whilst, without prejudice to any jurisdictional argument, we are grateful for any offer to provide additional legal certainty and protections, we believe that only a legislative change such as a clarification within appropriate legislation would ensure the necessary consistency across multiple judicial bodies and address the international best practice requirements above. The provision of such legal certainty would also, we respectfully suggest, open up the broader exciting opportunities of the digital economy to Pakistan.”

In layman’s terms, Google would only consider taking the video down for Pakistan if such protection was offered to them at a legislative level. The Lahore High Court in May agreed to do this, but nothing seems to have been done about that as of yet.

The software route

There are certain HTTPS-based software which can take care of this issue. These can be installed voluntarily by all internet users in the country, or the government could launch a sort of spyware campaign, forcedly installing it on everyone’s computers. According to reports, our government is already involved in such activity, but hopefully only against certain individuals and not the public at large.

MITM

In the meanwhile, the method that our government seems to favour is this one: the Man-In-The-Middle attack effectively puts a proxy server between all of Pakistan’s computers and YouTube. So instead of many of us going to proxy server sites to watch YouTube videos, the government is going to do us a solid and set up a lovely proxy server for us. This server will filter the videos that are deemed not fit to watch in Pakistan. And to use the immigration analogy from the beginning of this article, our government is possibly getting into the business of printing fake visas. They’re going to have to use a Certificate that our browsers will trust as legitimate. Most probably the browsers won’t, and will ask us, “Are you sure about this?” And we, in our desperation, will be willing to click “Yes!” to just about anything at that point.

First of all, the whole point of HTTPS is that it is secure. When you compromise its security, you’re compromising the privacy and security of all Pakistani internet users’ internet transactions and data. Banking pins, email and social media passwords, and secure messaging, could all be monitored, logged and analysed, turning Pakistan into a surveillance state. And what if this national proxy server is hacked? We can say with certainty, that if this method is used, our entire online lives would be at risk.

The best option would be to work with Google on this. We need to speed up the legislative process regarding the ILP issue. Even though this would mean that the government would be controlling YouTube’s activity according to our local laws, which would still be unacceptable to many of us. But still, at least we’ll have YouTube without as much risk!

As published by Dawn Magazine Special Report on 20th Oct’2013 

They say they’re lifting the ban on YouTube. The government has apparently come up with a brilliant plan so that just that silly video, The Innocence of Muslims, is blocked, and we can enjoy the rest of the gazillions of videos in peace. What is this plan? In order to even to begin to tell you about it, I’ll first have to explain how YouTube works.

YouTube, like other more secure websites these days, uses HTTPS instead of HTTP. When you look at the address bar in your browser when you’re at such a website, you’ll probably see a lock symbol and https://yoursiteaddress, rather than the usual http://blahblahblah. What does this mean? When you go to an HTTPS website, there is a certain exchange of certificates between your browser and the server where the site is hosted. Your browser acts a bit like an immigration officer, “May I see your passport, please?” The server says, “Here you go, sir!” And if everything looks ok, your browser allows you to view the site’s contents. These HTTPS certificates are only granted to an extremely limited number of servers across the world, and much like the holographic image on a valid visa on your passport, it would be next to impossible to fake, and all information in such exchanges with HTTPS servers is encrypted.

Now blocking access to an entire website using its root addresses (https://youtube.com, etc.) is one thing, and can be done by our Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But blocking access to a particular video on that site would mean screwing with this hardcore HTTPS protocol. Actually, the method that the ISPs have been using to block our access to YouTube, porn and a lot of sites which nobody has any idea why they have been banned in the first place, already puts our internet privacy at risk. This method allows them to keep track of what and when an internet user accesses on the internet, unless it’s done through HTTPS. And now that we’re moving against an actual HTTPS site, this will only make matters worse!

What options did we have in dealing with this issue?

  1. Unblocking YouTube outright.
  2. Working with Google, YouTube’s parent company, to block access to the video in Pakistan (like Indonesia, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey already have).
  3. Installation of filtering and surveillance software on users’ computers.
  4. A Machine/Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attack.

The case for unblocking

Because of the high number of complaints against this video, YouTube shows its users a notification before allowing them to watch the video. This is explained in the following excerpt from the letter they sent to Mr Yasser Hamdani, the lawyer representing Bytes for All in the Lahore High Court case to unban the site:

“In some cases, content may not breach the global guidelines but may still be flagged as particularly sensitive for some viewers. This is the case, for example, with the Innocence of Muslims video. In this case, we add a warning interstitial page that users see before they accept to continue through to the video itself.

The warning states: “The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive or inappropriate. Viewer discretion is advised”. It was on the basis of this interstitial page that the government of Bangladesh, for example, lifted its earlier ban on YouTube.”

Working with Google

Google has ruled out cooperating in this regard until the company is offered Intermediary Liability Protection (ILP) through a legislative amendment which shields it from any legal repercussions resulting from any user of the website uploading content that’s considered unlawful in Pakistan. Following is the text regarding this issue from the same letter to Mr Hamdani:

“In some countries, YouTube has additional functionality and customisation that allows for the highlighting to users of local content within a country. You can see a list of these countries in the ‘country’ menu at the bottom of a YouTube page. 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.

We have been discussing this in the context of the need for intermediary liability protection for online platforms and a clear notice-and-take-down mechanism in Pakistan to bring these provisions into line with international best practice (such as the OECD guidelines). For example, any notice-and-take-down requirements should be based on legal process, address individual video URLs as opposed to requiring broad general monitoring and pre-emptive removals, and allow for counter-notice from content owners. Whilst, without prejudice to any jurisdictional argument, we are grateful for any offer to provide additional legal certainty and protections, we believe that only a legislative change such as a clarification within appropriate legislation would ensure the necessary consistency across multiple judicial bodies and address the international best practice requirements above. The provision of such legal certainty would also, we respectfully suggest, open up the broader exciting opportunities of the digital economy to Pakistan.”

In layman’s terms, Google would only consider taking the video down for Pakistan if such protection was offered to them at a legislative level. The Lahore High Court in May agreed to do this, but nothing seems to have been done about that as of yet.

The software route

There are certain HTTPS-based software which can take care of this issue. These can be installed voluntarily by all internet users in the country, or the government could launch a sort of spyware campaign, forcedly installing it on everyone’s computers. According to reports, our government is already involved in such activity, but hopefully only against certain individuals and not the public at large.

MITM

In the meanwhile, the method that our government seems to favour is this one: the Man-In-The-Middle attack effectively puts a proxy server between all of Pakistan’s computers and YouTube. So instead of many of us going to proxy server sites to watch YouTube videos, the government is going to do us a solid and set up a lovely proxy server for us. This server will filter the videos that are deemed not fit to watch in Pakistan. And to use the immigration analogy from the beginning of this article, our government is possibly getting into the business of printing fake visas. They’re going to have to use a Certificate that our browsers will trust as legitimate. Most probably the browsers won’t, and will ask us, “Are you sure about this?” And we, in our desperation, will be willing to click “Yes!” to just about anything at that point.

First of all, the whole point of HTTPS is that it is secure. When you compromise its security, you’re compromising the privacy and security of all Pakistani internet users’ internet transactions and data. Banking pins, email and social media passwords, and secure messaging, could all be monitored, logged and analysed, turning Pakistan into a surveillance state. And what if this national proxy server is hacked? We can say with certainty, that if this method is used, our entire online lives would be at risk.

The best option would be to work with Google on this. We need to speed up the legislative process regarding the ILP issue. Even though this would mean that the government would be controlling YouTube’s activity according to our local laws, which would still be unacceptable to many of us. But still, at least we’ll have YouTube without as much risk!

As published by Dawn Magazine Special Report on 20th Oct’2013 

“There was life before YouTube you know” … say those trying to smooth my ruffled feathers when I express frustration at not being able to access it. Quite true … but the same is true of life before cars or television or the light bulb or toilet that can be flushed or even sliced bread! Why doesn’t everyone go back to it because all of these things offend someone or the other’s sensibilities at some stage?

No one does … because we are not meant to; we are meant to go forward, embrace change and reap its benefits. As with most things, nothing is good or bad in itself. The usage makes it so. It’s difficult to understand for people who are the progeny of those who labelled first the loudspeaker, then the radio, and then the TV/VCR, etc. as ‘Satanic devices’ but is simple for anyone with common sense.

YouTube is a platform; much like a blackboard, or a loudspeaker. It provides an opportunity for people to post video content on it. Yes, it has the good, the bad and the ugly sides, depending on who is watching what, but what it does NOT have is the ability to force you to see what you think is inappropriate.

What it does is that it allows students sitting in an impoverished part of the world to gain access to resources and guidance material developed by the best educational institutions in the world.

It allows musical prodigies like Usman Riaz from Pakistan to unlock their talent and reach the world stage. It allows people like Salman Khan of Bangladesh to set up his amazing www.khanacademy.org which has delivered over 300 million lectures across the world.

Then we have our very own www.sabaq.pk which has the complete curriculum of maths right up to Matric available on YouTube videos for students the world over.

It has delights such as www.toffeetv.com, which entertains and educates little children, and on the other end of the spectrum it had offered a free platform to our Virtual University to post all its educational content on it.

Then we had the innovative platform for webtv that was offered by www.247online.tv to engage the youth that does not watch television.

What about the harm this ban has done to initiatives like www.daestv whose entire business model was based on the availability of this free platform?

And what about the wealth of content that our specialist universities like the NED used to access from MIT or Air University? And medical students watching complicated surgeries and learning from them?

As was explained by Farieha Aziz of Bolobhi, the amicus curie for the Lahore High Court hearing the petition against YouTube ban, filed by BytesforAll, Pakistan [a human rights organisation with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies], there were 13,049,489 views on YouTube for videos from just six educational institutions in Pakistan that used the website to place their video lectures. The institutions included the Virtual University of Pakistan, The Institute of Chartered Accountants Pakistan, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, National University of Sciences and Technology.

For those who adopt a dismissive attitude about the art, music and other entertainment resources, even though they are just as important as components of a holistic education, how can they not value the resources that are there in the form of advocacy videos on health, fitness, environment, religion, cooking, DIY tips, advocacy videos put up there by various organisations. What about political and social activism? None of these would have been possible without this free medium.

Data submitted to the Lahore High Court also lists down some very clear contrasts. Total number of views for Islamic and educational content on YouTube were 1,199,368,564, while the total worldwide views of the objectionable film, The Innocence of Muslims, on YouTube were 1,965,186, which is just 0.164 per cent of the former.

Of course, the figures for the offending film owe a lot to the violent protests in Muslim countries which spiked the interest in this very amateurish video which had remained obscure until all hell broke loose here. It probably would have remained so had it been ignored, but what is past is past.

What is the way forward? Is there a way forward in a country where policies are made hostage to violent street protest and where rational discourse is decapitated?

For those who do not seem to understand the way the new medium of the internet works, it is impossible to block something. There are ways to get around these bans. People have found them in countries like China and Iran too.

Such bans encourage people to use proxies. This exposes their computers to the risk of viruses. Offices and institutions certainly will not allow that even if it means not being able to benefit from online resources.

But this does not mean that people are going to stay away. As posted by http://www.infopakistan.pk, the search trends about Pakistanis on YouTube have not changed from what they were in 2012. This means that just about the same number of people are accessing the medium as before the ban.

There are good and bad people, good and bad books, good and bad movies, restaurants and theatre. Similarly there is good and bad content on the internet. However, you can keep yourself out of harm’s way by not accessing it. No one is going to force it on you.

So go ahead, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you can afford to. Otherwise, just Google Youtube unblockers and choose from any number of ways to access YouTube, after making sure your computer is secured against viruses, etc. Watch all that is best on YouTube as it is NOT bad for you!

Published in The News on Sunday on October 13th – Special Report

Ask the people on the streets about the proposed VoIP ban, and the response is rather mixed
By Ammar Shahbazi

The Sindh government’s proposal to ban instant messaging and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) applications, such as Skype, WhatsApp, Tango and Viber for three months has drawn anger and ridicule from the public.940937 01 02 Typed out and that’s all

Internet users are enraged at their utter helplessness, as the government, flaunting its power, comes up with blanket measures — citing the ever-deteriorating law and order situation in the province.

They say government machinery, which is made up of grey-haired politicians and bureaucrats, is yet to comprehend the dynamics of internet.

“They are at a complete loss,” says Kashfia Altaf, a university student, “You cannot treat internet users like this. It’s a different world. The government is totally clueless when it comes to handling internet.”

At a press conference last week, Sindh Government’s information minister, Sharjeel Memon, called the proposed ban an inevitable step to curb criminals from making extortion calls through these Apps — a norm in the provincial capital Karachi during EidulAzha. He was of the view that the decision would complement the ongoing targeted operation in the city.

However, regular internet users see such an idea as a severe infringement of their right to benefit from the World Wide Web.

In the past several years, the use of VoIP apps like WhatsApp and Skype increased manifold. People have set up home-based business through Skype, where WhatsApp and Viber also became a crucial part of their lives.  

“Banning these Apps will affect people in different ways,” explains Khurram Ishtiaq, a software developer who works for a foreign company from his home in Karachi. “The world in general takes this Apps for granted now. There are e-businesses established on the basis of these tools. It’s like banning electricity for three months, because there is an increase in incidents of electrocutions.”

However, the proposal has its supporters, including the patron-in-chief of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto, who famously tweeted: “Dear Burgers, Sorry abt Skype/Viber/Whatsapp. Excuse us while we catch some terrorists and save some lives. SMS for 3 months. Sincerely BBZ.”

There are also some who like to believe that the use of VoIP Apps in Pakistan is exaggerated. And the wave of criticism on twitter against the decision was overly dramatic.

“Ask the people on the street, they won’t even know what Tango is or how WhatsApp works, even I don’t know,” says Shahid Idrees, another university student. “These Apps became trendy just a few years back, and the idea some of these arm-chair twitter-based activists are trying to give is that we cannot live without them. This is ridiculous. Why does everything becomes a life and death issue?”

Idrees, however, does not support Sindh government’s security strategy. He says the provincial government has a history of taking such extreme measures that only lead to problems for people.

The people of Sindh had in the last PPP-led government braved the most number of mobile service cancellations — spending whole days without connections. Then the YouTube ban followed.

The people in general have resorted to a muted response. The rage is usually typed out, and that’s all. Be it a cell phone network or a website, apart from twitter and other social media outlets, the government’s clampdowns never really propel a massive outrage — not even a memorable public demonstration against such trampling of individual rights. “This goes on to show how much YouTube, Skype or Tango is relevant to the majority of Pakistanis,” adds Idrees.

The ban is still a proposal. The federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, has voiced his disagreement over the idea, saying that he is personally against such an extreme measure. It may be mentioned that banning of websites or applications falls beyond the purview of the provincial government. It’s the federal interior minister who will give the final nod. The net-savvy Skype, WhatsApp users are using their Apps while the federal government makes up its mind.