The 9th hearing of the Pakistan Internet Freedom case (Bytes for All vs. Federation of Pakistan) concluded today at the Lahore High Court (LHC), presided over by the honourable Justice Mr. Mansoor Ali Shah.
The petitioner in the case, Bytes for All, is a human rights organization, advocating for internet-based freedoms and a focus on information and communication technologies and through this effort is striving for the popular video-sharing website, YouTube, to resume operations in Pakistan.
YouTube was initially blocked in Pakistan on September 18, 2012, after violent protests broke out all over the country in reaction to a blasphemous film uploaded on the website’s servers that outraged Muslims all across the world. The ban was lifted in early 2013, but only lasted for a few hours, and the website has remained blocked to Pakistani users ever since then.
The Pakistani government has made several unsuccessful attempts to reopen access to YouTube for its citizens, asking Google to open a local version of the site that would not allow users from the country to access that particular video, and also requesting the Internet giant to remove the film from its servers altogether. In all instances Google has refused to comply with the requests, saying that the film does not violate its ‘terms of service’ and that opening a local office in Pakistan would be impossible because of the lack of relevant legislation pertaining to Intermediary Liability Protection (ILP).
It is also relevant to mention here that over 20 countries across the world requested Google to remove the video clip, saying it was insulting and degrading for Muslims, with the most high-profile countries being the United States, which hosts Google’s servers, as well as Australia, Russia, India and Singapore. Despite widespread international condemnation, Google refused to comply with the requests.
In earlier hearings of the said case, the Lahore High Court has continually asked the relevant ministries to produce representatives from Google before the court so that their recommendations and suggestions could be viewed and incorporated. Unfortunately, Google has exhibited little interest in the case and so far has not sent any of its representatives to attend the hearings.
In a hearing of the case held on April 26, 2013, the honourable judge of the LHC, Mr. Mansoor Ali Shah, clearly stated that there should be mechanisms in place to allow YouTube to be unblocked ‘as soon as possible’ and also to ensure that ‘internet censorship does not become an exercise in arbitrary executive action’, referring to the unilateral decision of the Pakistani premier at the time, Raja Pervez Ashraf, to block the video-sharing website. It was also during the same hearing that the legal representative of the Federal Ministry of Information Technology, Mr Kamran, stated that the ministry ‘recognises the blocking of YouTube as detrimental to freedom of speech’, clearly indicating that the wishes of the federal government were to put this episode behind them and allow for one of the worlds’ most popular websites to resume operations in Pakistan.
At today’s hearing, the court once again inquired about the availability of Google’s representatives but was informed by the Deputy Attorney General (DAG), representing the Federation of Pakistan that Google had not responded to their repeated requests in this matter and seemingly has no interest in the case. The presiding judge took strong notice of this and noted that as Google was a major stakeholder, it should have presented possible solutions to end this crisis. The DAG was accompanied by a team of legal and technical experts from the Ministry of Information Technology, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and other departments.
The petitioner for the case, Bytes for All, also requested the court to temporarily lift the ban on YouTube while the government was in negotiations with Google to remove the blasphemous content. However, while responding to this request, the counsel for the Federation raised some objections and said that even a temporary lifting of the ban could incite violence and lead to a worsening of the law and order situation in Pakistan. The judge concurred with these remarks, but firmly stated that the relevant ministries need to find a solution to this issue as the topic of internet freedoms is guaranteed in the constitution and the masses of the country cannot afford to relinquish all access to the website.
During the hearing, Bytes for All urged PTA to accept some of the technical responsibilities for filtering content on YouTube and maintained that the internet regulator had the prowess to block individual URLs while keeping the rest of the platform accessible. PTA has strongly denied this capability in the past and maintains that Google alone can block access to videos on its platform. The judge urged both the telecom regulator and the human rights NGO to convene a joint meeting and invite independent experts from Pakistan and abroad to attend and advise on solutions to end this impasse.
Furthermore, the court also welcomed the suggestion from Bytes for All to bring in internationally renowned experts and appoint them as ‘Amicus Curiae’, or ‘Friends of the Court’, whereby their suggestions and solutions would be incorporated by the judges in their decisions pertaining to the case.
The next hearing was fixed by the court for the 25th of July, where a detailed joint report by the petitioner and respondent is expected to be presented.