The Government of Pakistan Must unban YouTube Now

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

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

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

Ruling on copyright, not film content

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

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

Removal on YouTube.com vs localized versions

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

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

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

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

YouTube remains blocked in Pakistan.

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

What does this mean for Pakistan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based, APNS-award winning journalist. She has a masters in English literature from the University of Karachi. She worked with Newsline from July 2007-January 2012 and is currently teaching literature to grades 9-12. She can be found on Twitter: @FariehaAziz and reached via email: farieha@bolobhi.org