What will Pakistanis see on YouTube?

A Pakistani protestor scuffles with a police officer during clashes that erupted as the demonstrators tried to approach the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Image copyright AP
Image caption Protests over the film Innocence of Muslims apparently prompted the 2012 ban...

YouTube is back in Pakistan, with a localised domain and a provision that Islamabad says will mean it can ask for access to material it deems "objectionable" to be blocked.

This has sparked fears of censorship among digital rights activists, who say that what started as a move to curb "blasphemy" may now extend to curbing political dissent.

It is too early to see what's missing and what's not on

The Innocence of Muslims, an amateur film about the Prophet Muhammad which was widely seen as derogatory to Islam and which sparked Pakistan's YouTube ban in September 2012, is not available for viewing.

But much of the other material, such as songs by a Pakistani band called Beygairat (disgraceful) Brigade which are highly critical of Pakistan's powerful military, are still available.

All about a film?

So was Pakistan's three-year YouTube hiatus really just about preventing riots over a film deemed blasphemous?

Farieha Aziz, journalist and co-founder of a digital rights and advocacy group called Bol Bhi (Do speak up), says the YouTube ban went into effect days before protests over the film actually broke out.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption ... but the ban actually came days before protests broke out

"This would mean that the Pakistani authorities were aiming for something more than just that," she says.

Activists point to the ambiguity surrounding the entire administrative and legal processes that have been unfolding since the September 2012 ban.

"Though officially the ban was ordered by Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA), instead of offering comments, they would direct news reporters to the Ministry of Information Technology, which would send them to the Interior Ministry, which would in turn refer them back to PTA," explains one Islamabad journalist who was covering the ban.

"It seems the real power rested with what was called an inter-ministerial committee for the evaluation of websites which has no constitutional status but which included members from concerned civilian departments as well as military intelligence. They never offered public comment."

Ms Aziz points out that resolutions were adopted by both houses of the national parliament, which recommended the lifting of the ban, but they fell on deaf ears.

The PTA also ignored procedural mechanisms explained during court hearings by both local experts and Google Inc (which owns YouTube) which could help discourage viewing of offensive material.

"Instead, [the IT ministry] adamantly pursued the localisation of YouTube. Anything short of controlling this medium was just not a palatable solution for it," she says.

Who decides 'takedown requests'?

Now that YouTube is back online, there are fears over the lack of transparency on the part of both the government and Google.

Image copyright YouTube

"Google has not offered any details of the agreement with Islamabad, but in private discussions they have indicated that as and when Pakistan requests for the blocking of certain content, Google will remove it after vetting the request in accordance with international standards," says Farhan Hussain of another digital rights group, Bytes for All Pakistan.

YouTube has denied claims that the authorities can filter content, saying all takedown requests are subject to its own reviews.

In a statement it said: "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."

Ms Hussain said: "The problem is, we don't know what their vetting process is, and what those international standards are. Google's annual transparency reports only provide statistics - such as how many requests for a ban were made by a country, and how many of them were accepted. But we would like to know the details of those requests."

And what about firewalls?

Digital rights activists are unanimous that localisation of a website has full potential to become a tool for censorship in the hands of a country.

In Pakistan, where so-called national security interests have dominated the basic rights of citizens, the tendency to control religious, gender and political diversity may continue to fuel a restrictive approach to information.

Already, the country has invested heavily in firewalls to block dozens of websites, particularly those run by ethnic Baloch separatists.

Most agree, however, that entertainment and educational content may largely remain unaffected on the .pk version of YouTube.

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