Pakistan’s problematic record on Internet restrictions

The fleeting nature of YouTube’s availability in Pakistan this weekend–the site, which has been banned in the country since September, was unblocked for a whole three minutes–is only the latest emblem of Islamabad’s erratic and confounding approach to Internet censorship. Those who have been hoping for less opaque tactics apparently are in for disappointment.

“It’s become even clearer that content regulation in Pakistan is not carried out in a transparent manner. Rather it is done at the whims of those in power,” Sana Saleem, co-founder and director of Karachi-based group Bolo Bhi, which works on Internet freedom and digital security, told CPJ by e-mail. 

YouTube was blocked in September by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s executive order, after the anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims” led to violent protests across the Middle East and South Asia. According to media reports, 26 people died and more than 200 were injured across Pakistan in the ensuing clashes.

The ban was briefly lifted on Saturday after the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority ordered Internet service providers to restore YouTube, following efforts at filtering content relating to the film, according to media reports. But a moment later, Ashraf issued orders to block it again, a senior official told Agence France-Presse. The blanket ban was reinstated when the filter was deemed ineffectual; the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said it did not work because hundreds of versions of the video are now available, media reports said.

Authorities in Pakistan claim they are respecting the religious sensibilities of the land by banning the video site. But the government’s longstanding record on Internet restrictions has raised pressing questions and criticisms. “The ban is much more than just a stance against blasphemous content. It reflects both on the ad-hoc nature of censorship in Pakistan and the lack of willingness to support open access and free flow of information,” Saleem told CPJ.

Over the years, Pakistan has frequently placed blanket bans in an effort to block content it deems problematic. In May 2010, Pakistan placed a blanket ban on Facebook, YouTube, certain Flickr and Wikipedia pages deemed “objectionable content” following the surfacing of a Facebook page called “Post Drawings of the Prophet Mohammad Day.” And more recently in May 2012, access to Twitter was temporarily banned due to “blasphemous” content. Pakistan has also blocked “anti-state” content including websites promoting Baluch, Sindhi, and Pashtun political views, as well as content on political autonomy and minority rights. This timeline from Bolo Bhi documents the country’s restrictions of the Web.

The latest move has angered many journalists and citizens in Pakistan. A seething op-ed in The Express Tribune called reinstatement of the ban “a rare case of energy from this lethargic government,” one that “prioritizes empty moralism over concrete action.”

At one point this year, Pakistan was working to create a powerful firewall like that in China: in February, the Information and Communication Technology Ministry issued a request for proposals for a national Internet censorship system that could review 50 million website links in less than a second. As CPJ noted at the time, such an unchecked, centrally-controlled censorship regime would be a recipe for disaster for online press freedom.

In April, Pakistan’s High Court of Sindh at Karachi appeared to come to a similar conclusion when it ruled, in a case brought by Saleem and others, that blocking websites without notice was in violation of Pakistan’s constitutional protections for due process and free expression. Since then, it’s unclear what is happening with the firewall plans. But, on November 8, Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced he would form a committee tasked with developing software that would monitor the uploading of “objectionable material” on YouTube. Who would decide what is objectionable–like so much of Pakistan’s Internet censorship policy–was not spelled out.