Pakistani officials consider options for filtering YouTube

November 11, 2012

For two months, Pakistanis have been unable to call up YouTube to watch an anti-Islam video that sparked deadly riots here and elsewhere in the Muslim world. But neither have they been able to use the service to view the U.S. presidential debates, to catch the “Gangnam Style” craze or even to laugh at silly kitties in the Friskies Internet Cat Video Awards.

Now, the netizens of Pakistan are telling the government that they want their YouTube back, prompting a reevaluation of the ban.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a regular social media user, announced last week that the government will set up a committee to find a way to filter anti-Islam content on YouTube — most notoriously, the crudely made “Innocence of Muslims” video that mocked the prophet Muhammad — but still let Bollywood music videos continue to entertain the nation.

A ministry official said a large number of people on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites have asked that the ban be lifted, but the government in Islamabad wants to ensure that material deemed blasphemous or otherwise objectionable is blocked.

“I will do my best to open U tube,” Malik tweeted last Tuesday. “You all know that this matter does not concern my ministry yet every body demands me to open it.”

The ban was put in place by the Ministry of Information Technology in mid-September on the orders of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

Although high-speed Internet access is too expensive for the vast majority of Pakistanis, many of them use their phones to surf the Internet because of low per-minute usage charges. And though pop music hits are popular, so, too, is religious programming.

A reader of the English-
language daily Dawn recently complained in a letter to the editor that he was unable to follow his routine of the past few years of watching the hajj religious pilgrimage on the Internet.

“I am sure that like me, many students, researchers, and knowledge seekers are missing a great utility that has been blocked because of the malicious designs of one criminal mind and failure of our telecommunication authorities in taking the pain to selectively block the websites involved in posting blasphemous material,” the writer said.

This is not the first time that the Internet has been censored here.

Twitter was briefly banned in May for tweets encouraging participation in the “Everyone Draw Muhammad Day” campaign on Facebook. Muslims consider any depiction of the prophet blasphemous.

Facebook has been shut down more than once over a page promoting the contest. The page still cannot be accessed in Pakistan.

Free-speech activists call the bans ineffective, knee-jerk reactions that ultimately serve no purpose. Twitter users in Pakistan managed to circumvent the shutdown and continued to tweet via their mobile devices. Some YouTube users also have found ways to access its videos, including by using proxy sites.

“Either we block the entire Internet, form our own version of the Internet like Iran is trying to do, or come to terms with the fact that we live in a global society,” the Express Tribune, another daily here, quoted its Web editor as saying.

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