It has been close to 11 months since YouTube was banned by the Pakistani government following the release of a ‘disgusting and reprehensible’ video titled Innocence of Muslims on the Google owned web property. On one hand, the content of the video inflamed the sensitivities of the predominantly Muslim populace and consequently, seemingly, justifies the Government’s decision on the heels of popular demand. But on the other hand, the blockage has had dire consequences for the knowledge workers and knowledge seekers alike.
Student are not able to access sites like khanacademy.org or online courses from the world’s leading universities. Online businesses are suffering because a leading platform to market their services is inaccessible and more importantly, blocking YouTube has had unintended consequences of blocking access to other non-YouTube Google properties, some hosting websites of Pakistani businesses or their collaboration platforms. YouTube is also the source of thousands of Islamic videos and lectures by leading Muslim scholars which are no longer accessible to the internet users wishing to learn from them.
The above graphic shows a categorization of just the top 50 popular channels that were returned based on queries on Islam, Quran, Pakistan, Urdu, Education, etc. It clearly shows that the viewership of content on YouTube is not only limited to entertainment or blasphemous content, but it also serves the purpose of spreading the teachings of Islam and educating our children, youth and professionals. In fact the viewership of such content was approximately 10,000 times more than the number of times the Innocence of Muslims video was watched worldwide.
Additionally, according to YouTube’s statistics page, more than 1 Billion unique users visit YouTube each month and watch 6 Billion hours of video belonging to all different categories most of which contribute to knowledge acquisition. 70% of that traffic and viewership is from outside of the United States.
When violence broke out in Pakistan due to the uploading of this video, Google (which owns YouTube) was requested to ban this video from viewing in Pakistan for violating it’s community guidelines, specifically the one in which it claims that the site does “not permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status and sexual orientation/gender identity).”
Google did not restrict the video from Pakistan, but it did put up a warning which is displayed to a user when he/she clicks on a link to view it. The warning clearly states that the video contains content that has been flagged by the community to be offensive and the video is rendered only after the user explicitly agrees to still watch it.
Additionally, Google has sought that it, and similar content hosting services be provided intermediary liability protection through a legislative amendment that covers the entire jurisdiction of Pakistan. Following that, the website may consider localizing YouTube in Pakistan and thereafter be able to block offensive content from viewing in the country based on legal requests that clearly demonstrate that a Pakistani law is being violated.
But the problem is, even after all of this is accomplished, what if the next offensive video that is introduced to the internet is not on YouTube, but on any of the rival video hosting sites? Will the government have to keep fighting this battle for every ridiculous piece of content that every jerk in any remote corner of the world with access to the internet keeps posting?
So, someone in the government came up with an idea of putting in place a central, government controlled content filtering system that will put the government in control of censorship of such offensive content. It had problems also, which I document below, but most of all, it has the potential of making the government liable for any offensive content that makes its way on the internet. More on that later.
I must point out here that YouTube has gradually moved all content service requests to force the use of HTTPS protocol which employs an encryption standard called SSL/TLS. Whereas it might be theoretically possible to break the encryption using extremely powerful computers and enough time at one’s disposal, there in no reasonable, efficient, and economical way to do so for every YouTube content request originating from over 20 million internet users in Pakistan.
Since an individual video on YouTube can not be blocked, the government has banned the entire YouTube site until a solution to this problem is found. I am all in favor of blocking this highly offensive video and other such blasphemous content, but a central, government owned, filtering system is not a viable approach for several reasons:
- Who will get to decide what an ‘objectionable’ piece of content is? Everyone’s definition of morality is different.
- It will open the door for Government led spying on its citizens, compromising their civil liberties.
- It will potentially create a choke point for all internet traffic in Pakistan which might result in extended down times.
- If implemented improperly, it can add to internet traffic latency, subsequently slowing down the internet.
- It can be easily circumvented by even non-technical users by using secure proxies freely available on the internet.
- It will not allow for content filtering for traffic using Secure Sockets Layer protocol or the HTTPS based encrypted traffic which most online properties use now including YouTube and Facebook.
Keeping in mind the sensitivities of the majority Muslim population, it is also not politically feasible to do nothing about objectionable content that demeans our beloved prophet or our religion. There is a solution that caters to all.
Implement filtering. But implement even better filtering by giving the citizens of Pakistan the right to choose what is accessible via the internet in their homes. If I am an extremely religious family, I would want to block access to content above and beyond what a government nanny may block through a central filtering system. The reverse holds true for families that are more liberal.
The solution is based on the following premises:
- There is no way to stop a person who explicitly wants to view any piece of content on the internet. It’s designed that way. Every computer on the internet has multiple ways of reaching it.
- HTTPS based content filtering is not possible in a reliable, efficient and economically feasible manner. The only solution is to block the domain or the entire website hosting offensive content.
- There is no reasonable way to police the insides of people’s homes. The government, if it so chooses can make it unlawful to view such content and punish the offenders if it’s substantially proven that a person has broken the law, but that doesn’t mean that computers or the right to access useful content be taken away from the citizens. We do not take away the knives or licensed guns from individual, only punish them when they use them to kill others after fair trial.
- The solution must work for all internet users and all devices, not just home PCs. Increasingly mobile devices are used to access the internet which renders many PC-only solutions useless.
- The solution has to be independent of the content providers or sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
- Given the above, the solution must be sufficiently effective, economically feasible and quick to implement.
So, why not make a cloud based, Domain Name Resolution service driven, web content filter available to all internet users? There is even a free one called OpenDNS. Alternatively, like is done in several countries including United Kingdom, mandate the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer on-demand, value added services for blocking of objectionable web sites driven by the subscribers’ preferences.
Government can subsidize the cost of this setup by the ISPs or better yet, allow them to monetize the service by tacking on a small additional charge to each subscriber. This system should also be a simple DNS resolution based filtering system that will not require the logging and analysis of specific content URLs of the users, but just the domain on which the content is hosted.
This has several benefits:
- First of all, this respects the wishes of the majority population that demands that objectionable content and websites be blocked. In fact, this provides them a solution which can be personalized to each citizen’s own sense of morality. More religious families might want to block access to movies and songs for example.
- It will make filtering efficient by distributing the processing workload to the cloud or ISP networks and avoids the creation of a single choke point or the slowing down of the internet.
- It’s cost efficient for the government as ISPs may recover some costs through the value added service offering. I wouldn’t mind paying an additional Rs 50 for the service that allows my kids to stay away from porn sites. I already use a whitelist on kid’s computer.
- It will make filtering more effective by allowing the home users to filter even SSL/HTTPS based content by blocking the sites hosting it.
- More importantly, this delegates the responsibility of being the custodian of one’s morality to the citizens themselves, instead of a government body. No one can point fingers at the government for offending their respective sense of morality.
If it’s absolutely essential, a blacklist controlled by popular voting of the internet users can be made available to both home users or the ISPs to serve as a default filter as long as each user has the choice to add or subtract from it. This default blacklist can be maintained on a website where users can submit objectionable URLs and others can up-vote or down-vote an entry. When a certain threshold is reached, the website gets added to the default blacklist and propagated to the ISPs
In my opinion, this solution addresses everyone’s concerns, is possibly the cheapest, most effective and most efficient and shows the government’s trust in its citizens to be the best guardians of their moralities.
Some useful links:
- Internet Filtering: The Politics and Mechanisms of Control
- FAQs by BoloBhi on National URL Filtering & Blocking System
- Bolo Bhi’s Amicus Reports on YouTube Case Hearings
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