Written by Nakul Nayak
In a significant development, Google announced yesterday that it has launched a localized version of its immensely popular video-sharing website YouTube in Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. With this launch, users in these countries will access country-specific homepages. Moreover the architecture of the site’s pages (and videos) will be tailored such that the YouTube experience will include the “most relevant videos” of a user’s country. It may be noted here that YouTube is already available in Nepali, Sinhalese, and Urdu.
The case of Pakistan is especially interesting because of YouTube’s frequent run-ins with the country’s administration over carrying blasphemous content. In fact, YouTube was banned in Pakistan in 2012 after the infamous film “Innocence of Muslims”, which was uploaded on and accessible through its site, created widespread public furore. The Supreme Court of Pakistan at that time insisted on the continuation of the ban till such time as a method was found to block all blasphemous content. Even though YouTube is now localized for Pakistani content, reports indicate that the ban on the accessibility to the website continues to persist. However, at least one report stated that users in different parts of Pakistan found “that the site was accessible under ‘https’ protocol.”
BytesforAll, an NGO based in Pakistan, had filed a case before the Lahore High Court in 2013, challenging the government’s blocking of YouTube. The case is still being heard. It may be worthy to recall here that just last month, the European Court of Human Rights in Cengiz v. Turkey had found Turkey’s blocking of YouTube to be violative of the right to receive and impart information. Unfortunately, the ECtHR judgment is available only in French. However, the official press release to the judgment stated that the Court
observed that YouTube was a single platform which enabled information of specific interest, particularly on political and social matters, to be broadcast. It was therefore an important source of communication and the blocking order precluded access to specific information which it was not possible to access by other means. Moreover, the ￼￼platform permitted the emergence of citizen journalism which could impart political information not conveyed by traditional media.
Moving forward, it would be interesting to note how the Pakistani government reacts to YouTube’s move of localized domain, language, and content; whether it decides to unblock YouTube or continues its ban. Moreover, the battle in the YouTube case in the Lahore High Court may take a decisive turn, with the Court more open to trusting a localised website, catering to the needs and legal regulations of Pakistan.
Update: 19 January 2016
Reports state that Pakistan has officially lifted its ban on users’ access to YouTube. This major development comes in the wake of Google’s launching a localised version of YouTube, tailor-made for the Pakistani audience (discussed above). Note that the current ban on YouTube was imposed after the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed that all “offending material” should be blocked from the site. But in an update tendered to the Supreme Court on Saturday, Dawn newspaper reports that “it was not possible to block access to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ clip — that caused an uproar in the Muslim world — without blocking the website’s IP address, which meant cutting all access to YouTube.“
Now, with a localised version of the site, the Government can ask YouTube to take down material and, as per the reported Government statement, YouTube would “accordingly restrict access”. However, at the same time, any content removal request to Google will be reviewed on the anvils of its own Community Guidelines and will be taken down only if it violates the same. According to Reuters, Google said in a statement “[w]e have clear community guidelines, and when videos violate those rules, we remove them … 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.“
In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to note the course of action taken by the Pakistani Government if a takedown request is not complied with by Google.