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Pakistan Tightens Internet Controls, Civil Surveillance

In recent years, Pakistani authorities have been blocking some websites accused of blasphemy or threatening internal security. But critics say those efforts are expanding, and the government is trying to shape online political discussions, curbing the public's access to information and broadening online surveillance.

The Internet is popular in Pakistan. Those who can, spend hours on social media or watching music videos, Hollywood updates, movies, sports and news.

But try clicking on YouTube, and it all grinds to a halt. YouTube is banned in Pakistan.

Pakistan's government blocked YouTube after riots broke over a video lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

Internet user Muhammad Iqbal said he agreed with the initial ban. But that it has gone on too long.

"Right now, this ban is totally useless. And I think the government must take steps to take off the ban on YouTube and go forward," he said.

According to the latest Freedom House report, Pakistan currently blocks not only YouTube, but also a number of social media and communication apps and sites with political, social and religious content. It is also expanding its surveillance capacities.

Critics said the government has used religion and national security as reasons to block an array of political and progressive content and shape how Pakistan citizens understood their world.

Activist Furhan Hussain of the media advocacy group Bytes For All said his group was involved in two court cases against the government for its censorship and surveillance activities.

"Censorship is just not right in any form. Moral policing is just not acceptable when it comes to adults living in a democratic setup. The noose around the communication and the civil society is being tightened by the day, the shrinking civil society space is very obvious. I don't think this is going to put an end to terrorism, rather it's just going to be counter-productive to a very nascent democracy," said Hussain.

Students at the private Springboard School in Rawalpindi, outside the capital Islamabad, have mixed feelings about the government blocks. They wanted the freedom to see music videos or academic lectures, but some supported banning what they said was blasphemous or politically contentious content.

But Hashir Mehmood said banning sites like YouTube would only drag Pakistan's development down.

"Other countries can get more information and they can become better than us. We want to become better of our own problems. But when the YouTube is down, if it's blocked, what's the point? We want to learn," said Hashir Mehmood, a student at Springboard School.

Earlier this month, a provincial minister threatened to ban Skype, Viber, and Whatsapp and other social media sites. Those who know how, use proxies to evade the website bans. It is less easy to avoid the surveillance software that activist Hussain says is now filling the Pakistani cyberspace.

Government officials did not respond to VOA attempts for comment.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.