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January 18, 2013 - Comments Off on Pakistan, Youtube Bans and Education for Awareness

Pakistan, Youtube Bans and Education for Awareness

-Haroon Riaz

Some governments need bans to make their presence felt.

It is hardly any surprise that the Pakistani government is one such authority. When you are unable to do anything about a violation of your perceived moral higher ground, it probably feels good to deny access to it, which would supposedly correct and improve the morals of the society at large.

So why Pakistan blocks youtube every now and then, you might ask?

This has not been the first youtube ban, and if it ever gets lifted, it certainly will not be the last. Because censorship somehow satisfies the vain sense of virtue of our nation, because that is all we can do about certain things and it makes us feel good.

At the same time, as we are in a middle of a “democracy”, you know, a democracy that only tolerates enough freedom of speech that the masses are conditioned to tolerate. Not realizing how undemocratic bans on communication channels are. You cannot help but wonder if the ban is really about blocking blasphemous and “indecent” material, whatever in the world that means.

Have you ever considered how vigilant the PTA or the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, Pakistan's information big brother, is when it comes to blocking youtube when the slightest opportunity presents itself before it?

Again I am not really sure if it is actually about the blasphemous material on youtube, especially the seemingly-indefinite current ban which was enforced by the government after they discovered that some people in Pakistan had discovered that some people in Egypt had discovered a trailer of an unimportant second rate anti-Islam motion picture called the Innocence of Muslims.

Even some of the most educated conservatives in the country, justified it. All the seemingly intellectual talk show hosts seemed to endorse the ban as well. This time it is more personal as far as Google is concerned and goes far beyond blocking a page or two, as previously has been the case with Wikipedia and facebook.

This time around, as it concerned the ever popular youtube than the ever popular and the much-easier-to-convince-and-not-easier-to-give-up facebook, the PTA was hoping to mold Google in succumbing to the local traditions and to sacrifice their vicious ideals of American freedom to operate in Pakistan in peace. But apparently to no effect. But that does not mean that the PTA is sitting idle.

PTA had been investing in a powerful mechanism to block hundreds of thousands of websites, particularly pornographic websites. So probably these bans mean something greater, such as the preliminary steps to a greater internet control. This means we would see more messages like the one in the image above whenever we are trying to visit a website with “indecent” content.

Because slowly but surely the ambiguous definition of “indecent” will begin to eat up just about anything that comes down as a threat on the radar of insecurities of the PTA and the nationalistic, religious and ideological ethos of the conservative Pakistani society. So, the government control of the internet and the youtube means the PTA converting it very much into the Pakistani media, which actually kills the entire point of using the internet.

But if the Pakistani government did block the youtube because of the blasphemous video, then there is no sense in lifting it because the video is still there. Isn't it? As youtube would most probably not remove the video on the basis of the principles of freedom of expression and their terms of services, whether you agree with them or not.

But if the PTA does get youtube to operate under the Pakistani laws, then you can say goodbye to possibly a lot of other content too, such as historical foreign documentaries and particularly atheistic and science youtube channels, which are in their own right “converting” the educated youth to a certain extent. At least its encouragement of critical reasoning shakes up their faith a little. It’s disturbing for the harmony of the society.

I tweeted this a couple of weeks back.

 How do I know there is still a government in Pakistan? Youtube is still blocked.

What I found interesting were a few responses to the tweet. Things like a youtube ban is not something that you cannot live without. The people in old times did not have computers and the internet and youtube, but they lived their lives happily.It's such a lame argument, if it can hardly be considered one at all. We have been so brainwashed that we can't even recognize our rights.

It is like saying that you should not claim your rights just because you have been deprived of it for centuries, like the right to education. Furthermore, centuries ago people had also been living without electricity, utilities and they had no CNG to fuel their cars with. Give up all that too and stop complaining about the government then.

Speaking of the government, a couple of days back Senator Rehman Malik, the interior Minister tweeted that he had recommended to lift the ban on youtube and had forwarded the summary to the Prime Minister. He also confirmed that the PTA would be using a “strong firewall” to block anti Islam, blasphemous and pornographic, you know “indecent”, material.

- There was a gr8 demand to unblock Utube from all sections of society esp fellow tweeps..expect the notification tday! Hope u r all happy now [tweet link]

- PTA is finalizing negotations for acquiring a powerful firewall software to totally block pornographic and blasphemous material. [tweet link]

Now, even if the youtube ban is lifted, that is bad news on just so many levels.

Because apparently the government is hellbent for greater internet control and to screw the great internet freedom that Pakistan had enjoyed in the earlier years, largely thanks to the ignorance about it in the conservative circles. Furthermore, I have observed, though I could be wrong, that the mainstream media has been growing more conservative by the day.

Rehman Malik can try all he can to give a shot at progressive actions, but given his party's resistance to liberalism (they need to get votes) and electoral alliances with obscurantist fundamentalist parties such as Sahebzada Fazal Karim's Sunni Itehad Council (a prime proponent of the youtube ban), the government will remain a guilty party.

And shortly after Malik's recommendation, the Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered blocking the youtube again after a brief lift of ban as the moral police immediately discovered that the blasphemous video was still up and running. So much for taking progressive steps. Still I think we must appreciate his individual efforts.

I hardly see any improvements in the near future, as apparently the mainstream Pakistani media is moving far more towards the conservative side of the slider since the Musharraf days. Because it’s about the faith of the Momin.

However, it is really our choice whether we choose to ignore our rights as a nation or whether we continue to indulge in acts of ignorance and obscurantism, fooling ourselves by taking them as acts of religious virtue. Fortunately or unfortunately, this problem is connected with a number of others in our society and are caused by the indoctrination that most of our nation has gone through.

Only secular education with encouragement of critical reasoning can help bring about the necessary change. These would impregnate our children with the values of liberty and reason that would emancipate them from the bonds of religious obscurantism. So it is up to us, whether we want to breed sheep out of farms or raise intelligent individuals who at least know their own rights, if not make the world a better place.

But in the end, this is just for the government of Pakistan, including the politicians and the bureaucracy, to know that there are people in Pakistan who are aware of their rights. They won't break any laws. Some of them may not want to go to jail to have them and certainly not die for them, at least not me, but they know what it’s about.

Life is more precious than any principles or political correctness, when it comes down to it.

Modified version for Digital Rights Foundation of the post that appeared on the Truth Journal.

November 15, 2012 - Comments Off on Seeking a More Free Internet through Multi-­Stakeholder Dialogue

Seeking a More Free Internet through Multi-­Stakeholder Dialogue

Download a copy of the joint statement

Joint Statement of Civil Society Delegates to the 2012 Internet Governance Forum

We, the undersigned representatives of civil society who attended and participated in the 2012 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) on 6-9 November 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan, make this statement upon the conclusion of the meeting to highlight the opinions we expressed and concerns we raised throughout the Forum. We engaged in this meeting with the objective of advocating for internet freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, and the rights to seek, receive, and impart information, as protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Our participation at the IGF was enabled by the unique multi-stakeholder model of the IGF, which gives civil society an equal voice alongside the government, business, and the technical communities. We believe this model creates more robust dialogue and more meaningful debate on the many issues involved in internet governance, including internet freedom, and we strongly support the continuation of the IGF and reject any proposals that would exclude civil society from its currently active role in determining the future of the internet.

In recent months and years, documents such as Freedom on the Net, published by Freedom House, and the 2011 report on internet freedom published by Frank LaRue, United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, have documented growing threats to internet freedom around the world.  In 2012, UN Human Rights Council Resolution L13 affirmed that all human rights should apply online just as they apply offline, and other internet freedoms were asserted in the 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, signed by representatives of the Organization for American States (OAS), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

We also note that next month, in Dubai, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will hold a major meeting that could fundamentally alter the structure and global reach of the internet. At the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which is open only to member states, their delegations, and some corporations able to pay for access, governments have put forward proposals that could expand the authority of the ITU over the internet in ways that would threaten internet openness and innovation, increase the costs of access and connection, and erode human rights.

Motivated by these concerns, we make the following recommendations to the Internet Governance Forum and the stakeholders represented in Baku this year:

To Governments

  • We call upon all governments to work toward universal access to the internet, regardless of barriers related to ethnicity, religion, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or language.
  • We call upon governments not to block websites in any but the most limited and exceptional cases, and only when provided by a just law, pursuant to the purposes laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and implemented according to due process by an independent judicial body in the least restrictive way required to achieve the purported aim. Further, we call upon governments to respect the right of their citizens to appeal in a just court of law the blocking or censorship of websites.
  • We implore governments never hold intermediaries liable for content they host or transmit.
  • We urge governments not to systematically collect private data on citizens, and to ensure that any surveillance conducted to pursue criminal elements should be limited, exceptional, and subject to the approval of an independent judiciary.
  • We call upon all states to investigate and work to prevent physical and online attacks against citizens who express their opinions online, and to hold the responsible parties to account.
  • We urge all states to ensure that individuals can speak anonymously on the internet.
  • We implore all governments to control the export of technologies that could be used to monitor or surveil, and to restrict the export of those technologies to regimes that have failed to demonstrate a commitment to upholding human rights.
  • We strongly urge all governments to cease campaigns designed to deliberately misinform citizens or discredit and dilute independent voices.
  • We encourage all governments to include civil society in their delegations to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December, 2012.

To Internet Companies

  • We urge ICT companies to join the Global Network Initiative, and abide by its code of conduct.
  • We call upon internet intermediaries not to limit rights to free expression and access to information except after legitimate judicial intervention, and to publicize all government requests to remove content or block services.   We urge all ICT companies with access to the personal information of users to fully respect the privacy of those individuals, retaining as little of that information as possible and preventing the exposure of that data to third parties.

To International & Multilateral Bodies

  • We call upon international and multi-lateral institutions to adopt internet freedom as a core value, and to speak out publicly against violations of human rights online.

To the International Telecommunications Union & Member States

  • We call upon all those represented at WCIT in December, 2012 to reject any proposals that might expand ITU authority in ways that would threaten the continued growth and global nature of the internet or restrict the exercise of human rights online.


  • Freedom House
  • 'Gbenga Sesan, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
  • Thai Netizen Network
  • Kamal Sedra, DISC Development
  • Mahmood Enayat, Small Media
  • Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles, Argentina
  • Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan
  • Alaksiej Carniajeu, Belarus IT Aid
  • Siarhei Mackievic, Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus
  • Anas Helali, Syrian IT specialist
  • Arzu Geybullayeva, Azerbaijani blogger
  • Myanmar ICT for Development Organization
  • i freedom Uganda
  • Community Empowerment for Progress Organization - CEPO, South Sudan
  • Egyptian Democratic Academy
  • Common Europe Foundation
  • Dr. Katy Pearce, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Washington

November 11, 2012 - Comments Off on A Short Interview with Emin Milli, an Azeri Blogger & Activist

A Short Interview with Emin Milli, an Azeri Blogger & Activist

Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani blogger and youth activist, spoke to Nighat Dad at 7th Internet Governance Forum in Baku. Emin Milli and his fellow activist were arrested in 2009 over a video which mocked government’s reported decision to import donkeys at ridiculous prices

Emin also wrote an open letter to President of Azerbaijan ahead of IGF while citing that the internet is not free in Azerbaijan.

“People in Azerbaijan live in fear. We fear for our lives, we fear for our jobs, we fear for the lives and jobs of our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we fear for our friends. We fear every time when someone close to us dares to disagree with you. We also pay a high price when we dare not to fear”

Here is the link to the video:

October 31, 2012 - Comments Off on Building the Great Firewall? Just Follow the Masters!

Building the Great Firewall? Just Follow the Masters!


Governments worldwide are trying to introduce legislations for cyber censorship, curbing the privacy of internet users. And it’s no different here in Pakistan. In fact the government of Pakistan is way ahead of many others when it comes to escalating internet censorship in the name of “national security”.

A division of the Ministry of Information, the National ICT R&D Fund, has published a Request for Proposals for a National URL Filtering and Blocking System. This proposal seeks to build a central database that would monitor URLs and handle a “block list” of over 50 million “undesirable” URLs.

At present if the government wants to ban any site it sends notice to that site’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) but with this system, when realized, the government will be able to shut down any site it wants without recourse to any intermediary and for whatever reason it sees fit.

With its Request for Proposals, the current democratic government of Pakistan is actually following the footsteps of those totalitarian regimes that block the highways of global connectivity for their citizens for their own spurious reasons. The Great Firewall of China operated by Ministry of Public Security China is one prime example. And Pakistan as the “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans” friend of China is only too proud to mimic China whenever possible for the benefit of the government or army.

The Request for Proposals claims that “Internet access in Pakistan is mostly unrestricted and unfiltered” and goes on to demonstrate the need of central blocking mechanism:

“The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and backbone providers have currently deployed manual URL filtering and blocking mechanism in order to block the specific URLs containing undesirable content as notified by PTA from time to time.

Many countries have deployed web filtering and blocking systems at Internet backbones within their countries. However, Pakistani ISPs and backbone providers have expressed their inability to block millions of undesirable web sites using current manual blocking systems. A national URL filtering and blocking system is therefore required to be deployed at national IP backbone of the country.”

This is not the first time that some sort of internet ban is being proposed in Pakistan; we have a long history of cyber censorship. The Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) blocked thousands of websites in 2007 in response to the Supreme Court’s order for “banning blasphemous” sites. In 2008, PTA blocked Youtube after the site hosted “Fitna”, the film by Geert Wilder.

Then, in May 2010 courts in Pakistan gave the government orders to ban the social networking site Facebook after some user started the controversial contest “Let’s Draw Muhammad”. Netizens of Pakistan had to use proxies to reach to their favorite social media site.

Recently, in November last year, PTA sent a notice to all cell phone companies to block some 1,600 terms and phrases deemed to be obscene from text messages or they would face stringent legal action. The directive wasn’t only hegemonic and unconstitutional but also supported the culture of moral policing in the country.

As can be seen, most such moves draw on the same tired old indefensible excuses of religious moral policing, the danger of terrorism and national security to justify themselves. The mass of the people become a puppet when the name of religion is invoked. Countrywide protests about the drawing competition moved the courts to take the decision to ban Facebook in May 2010 and now the blanket ban of URLs has the front banner claiming to ban pornographic sites “for the sake of our next generation”.

This seems to be the general reason but once it’s started who knows which sites we will be “allowed” to browse and which sites will be banned. As in China it could well be any site that carries the slightest criticism of the government or army. The envisaged plan with the capacity to block 50 million URLs with a delay no longer than one millisecond is not only deeply worrying but also indicative of the scalability of the government’s plans.

Information and communication technology is the driving force of today’s world. Rather than impinging on citizens’ privacy, the government of Pakistan should focus on training people in digital security to enable them to protect themselves and their children. Religious and cultural intolerance can only be increased by cutting people’s access to communication with the rest of the world. Enriching inter-cultural, inter-ethnic programmes and investing taxpayer’s money in basic education and health will give us much better long-term results. Banning what it deems to be “pornographic” sites only shows that the government considers the people to be infantile, vulnerable and stupid.


Originally written for Future Challenges.