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YouTube back in Pakistan with vague transparency

/ 03:26 PM January 31, 2016

ISLAMABAD — It has been 10 days since access to YouTube in Pakistan was reopened, but local producers of the content for the popular video-sharing website continue to worry when the axe will fall next and how.

They say they are confused because the agreement between Google and the government of Pakistan, that unblocked YouTube after almost three years, remains a secret and a mystery. Cyber operations require a well-defined process for blocking recalcitrant websites, according to them.

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Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation said that YouTube users only want to ensure transparency in the agreement.

“We are worried because it is a very serious issue. We use Google, Gmail and other websites. Our data can be handed over to the government anytime,” she said.

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“In the past, Google never gave attention and importance to the demands of government of Pakistan,” she said while talking to Dawn. “But, with the emergence of the local version of YouTube things have changed. Our government used to sidestep the issue by saying the matter was pending in the Supreme Court. The matter is still there but it has signed an agreement with Google,” she said.

Ms. Dad wants the agreement to be made public, “because only that will enable us to know the difference between the PK and global versions of the YouTube.”

“Google cannot run its business in other countries without transparency. Now we will have to see if it makes all its deals with Pakistan transparent or not,” she said.

Sources privy to the interactions between Google and Islamabad, however, dismissed such worries.

“Google has no special arrangements with the Pakistan government; just as it has no special arrangements with the government of any of the 88 countries where YouTube is localized. Government requests for removal on any Google platform, including YouTube, are uniformly treated worldwide and reported in Google’s biannual Transparency Report,” asserted the sources to Dawn.

“Moreover there is formal counter-notification system in place, with Google, for copyright claims and an appeals process for Community Guidelines strikes/violations. Users may try to push back on court order/government requests through other kinds of litigation, but not via YouTube directly,” they said.

Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) had advised internet service providers in the country in September 2012 to block YouTube as the blasphemous movie “Innocence of Muslims” uploaded on the website triggered widespread protests.

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Concerns of the critics of that action have not waned even after the unblocking of the website on January 18. Now they worry that, under its unpublicized agreement with Google, the government of Pakistan may not have armed itself with powers to censor the contents put on YouTube. Producers of the content want the PTA to make public its requests for blocking websites on monthly basis.

“We don’t object to government’s right to block websites, but in all fairness we need to know the criteria for taking that action,” said Syed Ahmad, chairman Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) while talking to Dawn.

“After all, a person loses readers and income if his or her blog or website is blocked even for a few days,” he said, suggesting that content producers be made part of the process of deciding the blocking issue.

“YouTube has been opened recently and in near future there will be many requests from the government to block contents,” he said.

“People buy the content and then upload it. Those whose website is closed should have the right to appeal,” he added. “A special platform is needed to look into all these issues.”

The convener of the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) Wahajus Siraj noted that “traffic of YouTube from Pakistan has doubled since its reopening.”

However, he wanted the PTA to ensure transparency in the process of blocking websites and contents by consulting the public.

Minister of State of Information Technology and Telecommunication Anusha Rahman was not available for comments despite many efforts. PTA spokesperson Khurram Mehran did not attend calls made to him for the same.

A spokesperson for Google, replying to an email, 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.”

“This process is consistent with how we handle requests in all countries where YouTube is localized. Government requests to remove content will continue to be tracked, and included in our Transparency Report.”

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