Important Update: Net Freedom Case - Meeting with the Federal Minister of IT and other stakeholders

Islamabad, May 01, 2014: Following the order of the Lahore High Court with regard to the Net Freedom Petition (Youtube Case), B4A participated in a meeting with a group of stakeholders at the Ministry of Information Technology, where a visible change in atmosphere was observed. The meeting was convened by the Federal Minister of Information Technology, Ms. Anusha Rahman, and was attended by heads of various government and corporate organizations, including the Chairman, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
 
As per the court instructions, the purpose of this meeting was for the selected committee to collectively brainstorm options for the facilitation of the unblocking of Youtube in Pakistan, which has been banned since 2012 though government orders, after a video mocking Islam was uploaded on the world's biggest video library.
 
The meeting started with a review of case updates, court instructions and status of Youtube availability around the world. It was promptly re-determined that no other Islamic country reacted in such an extreme manner, and that Youtube was still accessible world over, and questions were raised about Pakistan's extreme positions.
 
Following the review, the PTA chief categorically announced that no solution existed to technically block specific content up to a hundred percent effectiveness, and solutions such as Man In The Middle (MITM) attacks were not to be taken under consideration as these were risky, unethical and highly problematic.
 
Refreshingly, he reinforced that blocking was not a solution, and the active usage of VPNs and Proxies were proving to be very costly for Internet service providers because of the utilization of international bandwidth by the users. 
 
He further added that examples of Internet censorship from countries such as Iran and China were not applicable or advisable for Pakistan to follow.
 
On behalf of Nayatel, an independent 'solution' was presented which involved the banning of Youtube on HTTPS, (a secure protocol,) and the provision of accessing it only on HTTP, (an old and insecure protocal,) so the individual pages could be blocked. 
 
Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan strongly opposed this solution, and expressed deep alarm and concern over this suggestion. Shifting this Google service from a secure and encrypted protocol, HTTPS, to an old, unencrypted and unsecure protocol, HTTP, is not just a major regression, but also the license to put millions of Youtube users at severe risk of attacks endangering digital security and privacy. HTTP opens up the browsing experience to a wide range of hazardous vulnerabilities, including data/identity theft, privacy violations, malware infection, and account hacking. Whereas, HTTPS allows data to pass through safe and encrypted channels, preventing attacks.
 
Following this risk assessment by B4A, questions were collectively raised by various members of the committee about the legitimacy of such a recommendation, considering that setting up mechanisms to censor individual content in order to remove blanket censorship was counterproductive.
 
In continuation, it was also discussed that arbitrary methods of blocking individual links were problematic as there exists no one definition of 'offensive' or 'acceptable' to which everyone could collectively adhere to, and it was important to let the people democratically decide if they wanted to access certain content or not.
 
A number of participants seemed to be open to the practicality of B4A's suggestion, which implied that the burden of choice should remain with the citizens of the country, where they should have as much right to access content, as they would have for manually flagging it on the website as 'offensive,' without the involvement of any government mandated solution of censorship imposed on them.
 
In conclusion, the Ministry remained of the view that each recommendation discussed during the meeting would be made available in the final submission to the honorable court for its decision. 
 
B4A observes that there appears to be a change in the government's stance, perhaps due to active advocacy by the civil society, where it admits (with reservations) to the futility and wastage of resources when it comes to mass censorship and information controls. 
 
One question, however, remains pertinent. Is the democratic government empowered enough to influence the control mechanisms of the security establishment, which sees fundamental rights as a threat to the national security?
 
 
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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:
 
Bytes for All, Pakistan
House 273, Street 17, Sector F- 10/2
Islamabad, Pakistan
 
Tel. +92 51 2110494-9