Pakistan's censors crash YouTube for everyone

It looks like a mistake, but it's chilling anyway.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published February 25, 2008 6:23PM (EST)

On Friday, Pakistan's Internet regulator and censor, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, ordered ISPs in the country to shut down access to YouTube, which had been hosting a video that -- according to the Pakistani government -- was so critical of Islam it could have sparked riots.

PCTL, the nation's largest ISP, complied with the order -- but, either out of malice or by mistake, the technical rule it pushed across its network got replicated by Internet providers beyond Pakistan, an error that resulted in YouTube going offline around the world for several hours on Sunday.

That's right: Pakistan's censors brought down YouTube for all of us.

The situation was quickly remedied. As the Washington Post's Brian Krebs notes, the Internet is built on an infrastructure of trust. Internet service providers like PCTL can send out bad routing rules -- in this case, a rule to shut down YouTube -- that are then picked up by other ISPs, which then pass it on to others, and on and on until someone notices the errant rule. It could be hours before that occurs.

There's one more wrinkle here: Pakistan's regulators say that the YouTube clip they were blocking (it's since been taken down) featured a speech by Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician and Islam-hater who has previously compared the Quran to "Mein Kampf."

But critics of Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf see another motive. YouTube has been home to many anti-Musharraf videos of late, one activist, Shahzad Ahmed, tells the Wall Street Journal. Pakistan was probably trying to block those clips, he says.

There's something deeply distressing here, isn't there? We praise the Internet for bringing freedom of expression to lands that have little of it. Yet the network can work the other way, too. Musharraf doesn't like YouTube -- and it is within his power, at least for a time, to take his authority international.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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