Pakistan lifts its YouTube ban, but is this really a win for free speech?

Pakistan announced its agreement with YouTube on Monday, reversing an earlier decision to ban the site after an anti-Islamic video led to widespread protests. But digital rights activists wonder about how the Google-owned site will handle government requests to block content deemed offensive.

Shakil Adil/AP/File
Pakistani university students try to access YouTube in Karachi, Pakistan in September 2013. The government reinstated the site on Monday after a three-year ban, saying it had reached an agreement with Google to create a local version of the site.

Pakistan reversed a three-year-ban on YouTube on Monday after reaching an agreement with the Google-owned site to introduce a local version that would allow the Pakistani government to request the removal of content it deems offensive.

But as thousands of users regained access to the site, digital rights groups argued that the agreement between the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and Google lacked essential transparency provisions.

They pointed to a comment by the regulator saying that once it asked Google and YouTube to remove access to material it considers offensive, the sites would “accordingly restrict access.”

Google rejected that claim, saying it would conduct a “through review” of the material before it is blocked.

The government banned access to YouTube in September 2012 after an Arabic language version of the anti-Islamic “Innocence of Muslims” video was uploaded to the site a few days earlier, sparking global protests, which turned violent in several major cities.

In Pakistan, where charges of blasphemy can carry harsh penalties, including a death sentence, the government originally tried to block only the video, but ended up blocking YouTube entirely after Google refused to restrict access to the video, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

Launching a local version of the website — a standard practice for Google in countries around the world that have restrictions on certain types of speech, such as hate speech — allowed the government to restore access, Minister of State for IT and Telecom Anusha Rahman Khan told Al Jazeera.

"It took us some time to get to that stage where Google was ready because localization is a business case and we can't force anybody,” said Ms. Rahman Khan, who had previously criticized the ban before she was elected.

But the agreement’s lack of transparency could give the government too broad a brush, critics say.

“Although control lies with the management of YouTube, but if someone uploads a video critiquing government corruption, the Pakistani government can ask for the video to be restricted,” Syed Ahmad, chairman of the Pakistan Software Houses Association told Dawn. “In addition, the management of YouTube will have to pay more attention to the government’s demands making it easier for the government to censor content."

The government’s decision comes in the wake of a push to introduce a new error code that would indicate that a site can’t be accessed, not because of a broken link, but because it is being blocked by a particular government.

The code, known as Error 451, in a nod to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” was developed by Tim Bray, co-inventor of the XML specification. It includes model language specifying why and under what law it was blocked.

But while the new error has been given a thumbs-up by a key Internet standards group and can be used by developers — it is still optional, meaning governments won’t be required to disclose why or if they are censoring any particular site.

Previously, Pakistan has used content-blocking in a variety of ways, including to censor content related to political dissent and secessionist movements, the civil liberties group Freedom House found.

For example, the government briefly blocked the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) in 2013, a move reportedly related to the release of a British short film that depicted Pakistani security agencies abducting separatists from the country’s Balochistan province. It now blocks only the page for the film itself.

Google defended its policies on content blocking, pledging to make the requests it receives from governments around the world publicly available. Many tech companies have released reports showing how many requests they receive from individual governments, but they often don’t include details about why it was blocked.

"Removal requests from the government in Pakistan will be handled the same way as for governments around the world," a YouTube spokeswoman told the Monitor. "We have clear community guidelines, and when videos violate those rules, we remove them. In addition, where we have launched YouTube locally and we are notified that a video is illegal in that country, we may restrict access to it after a thorough review."

But civil liberties groups said the negotiations between Google and the Pakistan government were conducted entirely out of public view, in contrast to earlier challenges over the country’s YouTube ban, which were debated in the courts.

“A few days ago, restrictions on YouTube were relaxed and then, suddenly, we came to know that Google representatives were in Pakistan and it was announced that the website had been localized,” Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, told Dawn. “The agreement should be made public because that is how we can know what kind of material has been restricted and what kind of content will be restricted in the future."

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