Pakistanis 'embrace' YouTube mascot to protest internet censorship

Screen grab of video 'Hugs for YouTube', uploaded onto Vimeo and posted in the Facebook group 'Pakistan for all'.
 
Pakistani activists are turning to humor as a weapon in their fight against state internet censorship. YouTube may have been banned for over a year, but it still managed to make an appearance on the streets of Karachi: as a mascot offering hugs to those who want it back.
 
In a video uploaded by members of 'Pakistan for all' - a citizens' rights group - a mascot dressed up in a YouTube logo walks through the city with a sign that says: 'Hug me if you want me back'. The mascot makes its way from traffic-clogged streets to the calmer confines of the beach, where Karachiites meet it with a smile and a hug. The stunt is part of a campaign that opposes state regulation of the internet.
 
The video, 'Hugs for Youtube', is part of a campaign against internet censorship in Pakistan. Posted in Facebook group 'Pakistan for All'.
 
The video-sharing site was originally blocked in September after the short film 'The Innocence of Muslims' led to rioting across the Islamic world. But the site is just one of many that internet users are denied access to. Other pages that have been banned include the video of a song by the 'Beygairat Brigade' that pokes fun at the Pakistani military.

"The authorities view YouTube as a subversive tool so they’re keen to go on suppressing it"

Ziad Zafar is a member of the team that directed the 'Hugs for YouTube' video. He's also the co-founder of the online Facebook group 'Pakistan for all', an alliance of various groups opposed to extremism.
 
People rushed up to us spontaneously and began hugging the mascot. One of our first reactions was in a parking lot, and the valet came up to us and said, “We can’t get by without YouTube. I wish they would just open it!” There wasn’t a single instance where somebody was angered by it. It’s a difficult thing to protest about in Pakistan: the only thing you can really do is mock it. So we decided that ridicule is better than any other form of protest.
 
The authorities view YouTube as a subversive tool so they’re keen to go on suppressing it. YouTube is an essential pillar of the new digital media landscape and pivotal to how the new generation communicates. After Google and Facebook, it’s the third most visited site in the world. Banning YouTube cripples internet usage for the average Pakistani. If you look at the index of the top five websites in Pakistan, the top three are proxy websites. Just about everyone in Pakistan is logging onto a proxy server.
 
Sana Saleem - a Pakistani activist working on internet freedom - told FRANCE 24 that "if you provide evidence of intelligence agencies or military personnel being involved in corruption or human rights abuse, that’s the sort of thing that will get blocked." Separatist websites that claim to reveal human rights abuses in Baluchistan are particularly difficult to access. Our Observer also says that her blog was temporarily blocked in 2010, after she criticised the government's decision to block Facebook.

"Now anything objectionable, offensive or obscene can be blocked"

Shahzad Ahmad is the director of the group 'Bytes for All', a Pakistani human rights organisation that focuses on internet freedom. His group has recently launched litigation against the constitutionality of the YouTube ban.
 
The government uses different excuses to control our channels of communication. We have been monitoring cyberspace in Pakistan since 2007. Back then, they used the reason of ‘blasphemy’ to block content in Pakistan. Then they blocked content for reasons of national security. Then they added ‘war on terror’ as a reason. These are all excuses that they have been using to curb freedom of expression online. Recently they have added porn. Porn wasn’t blocked before, but recently they’ve started blocking it. It’s a kind of moral policing.
 
Message that greeted internet users trying to access 'Tumblr' when the site was temporarily blocked. Image sent to FRANCE 24 by Shahzad Ahmad.
 
 
Recently we have also seen an increasing trend of blocking mobile phones. For example, two or three days ago we had a religious festival, and we only got our mobile service back last night. They were blocked in most parts of the country in the name of national security. They have been saying since last year that mobile phones contribute to terrorism: terrorists use mobile phones to coordinate attacks, or as remote detonators for bombs. But we believe that banning phones won’t help fight terrorism.
 
"It’s arbitrary and it’s completely up to authorities"

The Pakistani Telecommunication Authority is supposedly an autonomous authority that governs Internet and communications in Pakistan. But they are now totally operating under the government’s directives. They get advice from an elusive inter-ministerial committee and this advice is forwarded to ISPs or service providers so they can block content. Now anything objectionable, offensive or obscene can be blocked: but something objectionable to you may not be objectionable to me. It’s arbitrary and it’s completely up to authorities.

According to 'The Citizen Lab' - a University of Toronto initiative that studies the use of "political power in cyberspace" - Pakistan's government is using ever more sophisticated methods to regulate Internet activity. In June, the group reported that 'Netsweeper' - a Canadian firm - had provided the Pakistani government with technology that could be used to censor online content. However, Netsweeper did not immediately respond to our request for a comment.
 
Having tried several times to contact the Pakistani government for a response to these allegations, at the time of publishing FRANCE 24 had yet to receive a reply.
 
Article written by FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).

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