YouTube case: PTA using defamatory tactics to pressure petitioner

Director General, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) unwittingly admits to using notorious Netsweeper tool to police the Internet
 
Bytes For All responds to allegations, one-sided account leaked to press by PTA
 
ISLAMABAD, July 23, 2013: Bytes For All strongly condemns the biased and one-sided account of a meeting between Bytes for All (B4A) and Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) that has been narrated in a section of the press.  We believe this is a concerted effort by the authorities to defame Bytes For All and undermine the struggle against online censorship by the state. Articles appearing in the section of the press in question present a completely one-sided and false account ignoring Bytes For All's side of the story.
 
On the directives of the Lahore High Court, a team of independent technology experts and Bytes For All met PTA and other stakeholders on July 23. During the meeting, Bytes For All categorically opposed any and all forms of online censorship, citing that online freedom of speech is critically important for the nascent democracy in Pakistan. According to Bytes For All, online censorship will ultimately affect common users by limiting access to content, while also negatively impacting the socio-economic well-being of citizens.
 
Waseem Tauqir, Director General (Planning and Strategy) PTA conducted the meeting in a facetious manner, disregarding and refusing to entertain numerous queries by the Bytes For All team and independent experts. He went as far as threatening to end the proceedings prematurely and frequently gave shut-up calls when posed with tough questions. The meeting was also disrupted by belligerent PTA staffers, who attempted to engage Bytes For All’s counsel in a shouting match, claiming that “you can go to the court if you want and name me”.
 
The Bytes For All team also shared its findings regarding the presence of the notorious mass-surveillance software, NetSweeper, in Pakistan. While the DG initially shied away from the subject, but upon insistence, admitted that the software was indeed used to filter web URLs and was even “repaired by the vendor (NetSweeper)”. This casual admission was shocking for the Bytes For All team, as well as many of the independent experts there, who tried to probe the DG for more details but with little success.
 
On the subject of reopening YouTube, PTA maintained that it could not block secure HTTPS URLs without compromising the entire domain, hence they could not unblock the site. Bytes For All representatives raised the issue of a video by local musicians Beghairat Brigade, which was hosted at Vimeo.com (which is an HTTPS site) and remained blocked for several days. The blocking of the Beghairat Brigade video was witnessed and reported by thousands of individuals across Pakistan and abroad, even as the rest of the website functioned perfectly. At this point, when Bytes For All’s counsel pointed out the contradiction in the DG’s claim, Tauqir took offence and ended discussion on this point by instructing the individual tasked with taking minutes to note down the PTA’s stance on the matter, without heeding the note of dissent voiced by experts.
 
When the discussion took a turn towards the nature of online censorship in Pakistan, the policies and the persons who were the competent authorities, PTA deflected responsibility onto Ministry for Information Technology. A representative of the MoIT, in turn, stated that all policy decisions regarding online censorship were taken by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Telecom. However, when asked exactly what constitutes blasphemy, both PTA and MoIT were of the view that this was a highly subjective matter and did not fall within their purview. It was also at this point that Bytes For All’s representatives suggested that parliament be requested to use its sovereign authority and define exactly what constitutes blasphemous content.
 
Most technical questions posed by the Bytes For All team were sidestepped or ignored, deemed 'non-technical' or 'irrelevant.' Even the obvious anomalies in PTA's claims, when highlighted were simply ignored, with the DG not bothering to respond to them. The meeting concluded without a consensus on any findings because of the high-handedness and the disruptive attitude of PTA office bearers.
 
Bytes For All has always maintained that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of any thriving democracy, and to that end has pursued litigation asking that the ban on popular video-sharing website, Youtube, be withdrawn as it is adversely impacting the lives of Internet users across the country and depriving many of their basic right to education and entertainment.
 
Bytes For All is committed to its stance that “Censorship is not a solution” and has vowed to continue its struggle to convince the courts to reopen YouTube, as a first step towards securing greater freedom of expression in Pakistan.
 
To download the press release in Urdu, please click here.
 
 
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About Bytes for All, Pakistan
 
Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan is a human rights organization and a network of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals and practitioners. It experiments and organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening social justice movements in the country. Its mission is “ICTs for development, democracy and social justice”. www.bytesforall.pk
 
For more information (and please note the change in the office address):
 
Bytes for All, Pakistan
House 273, Street 17, Sector F- 10/2, Islamabad, Pakistan
 
Tel. +92 51 2110494-95