Pakistan has removed a three-year ban on YouTube after the Google-owned video-sharing website launched a local version but the news has been met with scepticism over fears of online censorship in the country.
Pakistan banned access to YouTube in September 2012 after the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” was uploaded to the site, sparking violent protests across major cities in the country.
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The ban was overturned on Monday following the launch of the local version that allows authorities to demand removal of material it considers offensive.
In the new version, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority can ask for access to offending material to be blocked, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom said in a statement.
“Localisation and a country version was the only way forward as a solution and we requested and convinced Google that this is what Pakistan needed,” Anusha Rahman Khan, the IT and telecoms minister, told Al Jazeera.
“It took us some time to get to that stage where Google was ready because localisation is a business case and we can’t force anybody.”
The government could ask Google to block access to offending material for users within Pakistan and the ministry said Google and YouTube would “accordingly restrict access” for Pakistani users.
Google, however, said that it would not automatically remove material without conducting a review, and that the vetting process was the same as in other jurisdictions with local YouTube versions.
“We have clear community guidelines, and when videos violate those rules, we remove them,” Google said in a statement.
“Where we have launched YouTube locally and we are notified that a video is illegal in that country, we may restrict access to it after a thorough review.”
However, the arrangement was described as a “patchwork” by Badar Khushnood, a former Google Pakistan country consultant, who added that the lack of transparency in the deal puts a big question mark over internet freedom in Pakistan.
“The way they’ve fixed it is more of a patchwork than a full solution,” Khushnood, who is cofounder of the digital and social media agency Bramerz, told Al Jazeera.
“With the growth of 3G services and cheaper handsets in Pakistan, Google was missing out on revenue and huge traffic. As they say, follow the user and the money will follow you.
“The ban meant huge potential in terms of revenue was missed out on. A local version, as they’ve done now, should’ve been put in place much earlier.”
Wahajus Siraj, convener of the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan, confirmed to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that the anti-Islam film was no longer available on YouTube.
Eid-e-YouTube Mubarak, Pakistan.
— Emad Zafar (@EmadZafar) January 18, 2016
“The film is no longer available. There are certain purported links, but when I tried to open them, it told me the content could not be viewed in Pakistan. This shows that the government’s demands have been met,” said Siraj.
“It doesn’t make a difference whether one types in youtube.com.pk or simply youtube.com. It seems that the website is filtering IP addresses and it gives Internet users in Pakistan the ‘PK’ version irrespectively. This is a positive development.”
Khushnood, meanwhile, added that Google, when it starts using a local domain, complies with rules and laws pertaining to that country, adding further questions on the censorship issue should the ruling government request removal of unfavourable content.
Pakistan has blocked thousands of web pages it has deemed undesirable in the past few years as internet access spreads, but activists say the government sometimes blocks sites to muzzle liberal or critical voices.
With additional reporting by Hameedullah Khan