Pakistan is becoming more Orwellian by the week. The ban on YouTube has now been announced as “indefinite” as the government has been unable to find a way to block blasphemous content. For me the ban was inconvenient for around 10 minutes — the time it took to find a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) that spoofs my IP address, downloads and installs it. There are dozens of options for dodging around the ban and millions have gone this route. To the best of my knowledge nobody has been arrested or prosecuted for doing so, because so far as I am able to tell, no specific law is being broken.
In the wake of the YouTube ban, several locally-grown file sharing sites have been developed that use YouTube content but apply varying levels of filtering. A little experimentation reveals that searching for the English counties of Essex and Sussex is blocked on one site, as is a search for tracks by the 1970s punk band The Sex Pistols — but on a similar site neither is blocked.
Going in search of blasphemous content on these supposedly ‘clean’ sites quickly revealed that those who run them or set them up have very little knowledge or understanding of the world of stand-up comedy. Every religion under the sun comes in for a thrashing, and some of the content would make the publishers of Charlie Hebdo blink. All there at the click of a mouse, on sites that have the blessing of the government.
Moving on from the file-sharing sites, there is a vast mucky ocean of pornography out there as well, a lot of it free. Government agencies have blocked countless thousands of pornographic websites but once again the VPN workaround does the trick and pornographic content is available to anybody who wants to view it in Pakistan. This keeps the thriving pornographic CD/DVD industry in business, a multi-billion rupee cash cow that goes from strength to strength.
If your tastes veer towards the jihadi or the scummy waters of sectarianism, then there are websites in Arabic and English as well, I discovered, as French, German and Portuguese that were poisonously sectarian in their content. I also discovered that I did not need to use a VPN to view this material on all of the sites I found — the government was not blocking them and was presumably happy to allow them to propagate their messages of hatred and intolerance. Pornography may be deemed unfit for Pakistani consumption, but it is fine to advocate the killing of people who belong to certain sects or religious faiths.
Those who want to really dig into the darkest recesses of the internet can download a TOR browser for themselves and explore the Dark Net, a move I would not advise but there are many here that I know use TOR as their preferred workaround for government attempts to censor what they can or cannot see.
All of the above I was able to discover sitting at my desk over the space of a couple of hours. There is without a doubt a freedom of speech issue around the YouTube ban, and at least one NGO has fought it through the courts. But the internet is constantly evolving, and even the monolithic YouTube will one day disappear as will Facebook and Twitter as other platforms emerge and consumer tastes and needs change.
Before the ban, YouTube was a popular site for people in Pakistan who were plugged into distance-learning education programmes, and many universities were uploading material for student use. It was also the go-to site for local news material that the mainstream media could not or would not touch; it still is but only if you are using a proxy service.
As governments everywhere in the world have learned, the internet can be deeply inconvenient to say the very least. It can in some circumstances feed political instability and it is obviously a vehicle for terrorism — and it is ubiquitous. Blocking YouTube to satisfy the clerical establishment has done nothing but stimulate a workaround culture that now has its own ubiquity, rendering the ban meaningless. Censorship has generated a creative obverse, an unforeseen consequence of limiting freedoms.