Pakistan official consider options for filtering YouTube videos


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 US 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 re-evaluation of the ban.

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

Malik's announcement followed the sentencing of "Innocence of Muslims" filmmaker Mark Basseley Youssef of California to a year in prison for parole violations.

The decision to revisit the YouTube ban had nothing to do with the Youssef's imprisonment, the ministry said. A large number of people on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites asked for a lifting of the ban, a ministry official explained, but the government wants to ensure that objectionable or material deemed blasphemous is blocked.

"I will do my best to open U tube," Malik tweeted on 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 residents here, many Pakistanis use their phones to surf the Internet because of low per-minute usage charges. And while pop music hits are popular, so too is religious programming.

Last week a reader of the English language daily Dawn complained in a letter to the editor that he was unable to follow his routine of the last 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 the Internet has been censored here.

Twitter was briefly banned in May for tweets encouraging participation in "Everyone Draw Muhammad Day" on Facebook. Any depiction of the prophet is considered blasphemous to Muslims.

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 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 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.

The interior ministry official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, made clear that the will of the people ultimately determine what material is allowed and what will be blocked as objectionable: "This is an Islamic country and we are Muslims and we need to be mindful of the sentiments of the public."

No decision has been announced on who will serve on the committee reconsidering the YouTube ban.