January 19, 2016

Understandable but Very Wrong: Google Enables Government YouTube Censorship in Pakistan

Literally within hours of the horrifying and sickening news of a 15-year-old boy in Pakistan who cut off his own right hand after he was the target of hysterical false accusations of blasphemy, comes word that Google -- in a successful bid to get a three year YouTube ban in Pakistan lifted -- will be permitting government officials in that country -- apparently all the way down to the local level -- essentially unfettered rights to censor and block individual YouTube videos from view in Pakistan.

This is an enormously troubling development for free speech advocates around the world, particularly because it's impossible to overlook the relationship between the boy's actions and the upcoming Pakistan/YouTube censorship system.

The powers being ceded to the government there to censor Google at the individual YouTube video level -- arguably even worse than the EU's awful "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF) scheme -- continues our acceleration down the slippery slope of permitting governments to demand rights to micromanage information for their own political benefit and the personal enrichment (politically and in some cases financially) of their leaders and other politicians.

I like to think of myself as a "responsible" free speech advocate. That is, I strongly assert the importance of free speech, but acknowledge that sometimes, in carefully delineated circumstances that must be minimized as completely as possible, some restrictions are necessary.

So, for example, I generally strongly support Google/YouTube's global Terms of Service that prohibit videos that are directly violent -- such as videos that show physical abuse of people or other animals.

And I have nothing but respect for the Google policy and legal teams that must deal with these complex multinational situations. Similarly, the work done by Google engineers on politically neutral abuse detection systems and that of the human teams that help apply YouTube anti-abuse rules are also all exemplary.

I've explicitly noted the exceptional circumstances of videos that incite terrorism, e.g., recently in my discussion of "A Proposal for Dealing with Terrorist Videos on the Internet" ( https://lauren.vortex.com/archive/001139.html ).

But in Pakistan the concepts of (for example) blasphemy and government control are intertwined -- accusations of the former are frequently used for purposes of the latter -- and any discussions that the government there feels are blasphemous (by their own broad and self-serving definitions) -- or speaking out against the government in any manner -- are key targets for abusive censorship.

With Google now explicitly buying into this censorship regime as the price of removing an overall Pakistan block on YouTube -- and note that the Pakistani government apparently will be setting the standards under which YT videos will be judged in violation -- the situation in my view becomes much worse for the population there than would be the case without access to YT at all (yes, we know that some relatively small number of people have always gotten through with VPNs and proxies, but that's largely irrelevant to the overall population).

The Pakistan version of Google-enabled national censorship isn't as straightforward as say, a relatively "simple" ban against Nazi memorabilia-related materials in France. In Pakistan, Google has become much more of a direct partner in the government's very broad, politically-motivated and personally suppressing censorship actions.

The kind of YT censorship that will be enabled in Pakistan is much more akin to how China censors its population -- where what will or will not be allowed to be seen in any media is carefully chosen and restricted to promote the government line and muzzle dissenting points of view.

I absolutely understand the pragmatic realities of having to obey laws in those countries in which Google chooses -- voluntarily -- to operate, but I find the newly announced and apparently Google-endorsed government controls over YouTube content in Pakistan to be extremely disturbing, and a horrific precedent for other countries going forward.

Everyone everywhere who is concerned about the responsible exercise of free speech should be alarmed at these developments.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at January 19, 2016 09:48 AM | Permalink
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