Facebook: Appearing offline after the ban

Hasnain Bokhari

In November 2007, when the then president General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, he probably had not expected the scale of protests with a considerable involvement of the youth groups. The emergency law disallowed all sorts of public gathering. But the tech-savvy youth in Pakistan came up with innovative ideas of initiating the flash mobs and the famous balloon carrying Wrangler and Hang Ten youth on the busy streets of Islamabad. They outsmarted law enforcing and riot police by propagating messages via social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter and communicated even more instantly by announcing flash mobs via SMS. By the time law would come after them, the protesters would have successfully protested and dispersed.

Facebook was then hailed as the most powerful internet tool for mobilising community. Later we witnessed how the then US presidential candidate Barrack Obama used social networking websites to raise a record amount of funds through such websites and how the internet-savvy public in Iran heavily relied on Twitter post regarding the Iran elections last year. Facebook is in news again, but this time for all bad reasons. This time people are protesting against Facebook. In response to a petition filed by Ch Zulfiqar advocate, Justice Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court announced a ban on Facebook for its blasphemous cartoon competition.

Facebook which started in 2004 is a brainchild of then 22-year-old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. Despite the presence of other websites such as Orkut or MySpace, Facebook rose to popularity because of its personal status, picture and video-sharing and group features. Any Facebook user can create a virtual group and invite members as long as it does not fall into racist, hate, discriminatory or pornographic category. What happened in a recent event is that the Facebook is holding a competition on blasphemous cartoons and this is how the petitioner based his argument to convince the court.

What this petitioner may not have known or brought into the respected court’s attention is that Facebook itself is not organising any sort of competition as such or inviting all its users to participate for that matter. The competition was announced by a virtual group created on Facebook by a bunch of people when Seattle-based artist Molly Hill’s cartoon for the television series South Park got trimmed by the television network Comedy Central. Molly has though announced on her website (www.mollynorris.com) that the creation of the Facebook group about cartoon competition is not her idea but of some stranger. But her declaration cannot help the ban to be active till May 31.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has now safely banned Facebook but Facebook’s page for mobile phone users was still active on the following days of its ban where there is a sheer race for updating personal status messages and the responses to it. The question here is not how swiftly the Facebook can be banned. The matter has more to do with the Internet regulation or internet governance.

In such scenarios, any virtual group inciting and hurting people’s sentiments should have been considered for a ban rather than blocking access to the whole website. However, since currently there is no such technology to block particular sections of such websites, so the temporary solution is to block access to the whole website. A number of users have already reported the Facebook about this group. Facebook’s current stance is that the group does not seem to violate its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” charter but said it was considering an action against it. Should Facebook not block this virtual group and would this ban help block this particular Facebook group?

Digital communications today don’t occur with the land line phones or even old-fashioned mobile phones. People now prefer to communicate via voice over IP phones such as Skype or its other variants, they seek news update via web feeds or Real System Syndication (RSS) and via audio/video podcasts, they socialise via social networking websites of which Facebook is just one example. Internet is a whole different world where all the netizens have their virtual presence. Just as any society and its citizens are bound by a code of conduct, cyber space and its netizens also require proper governance, advocacy, regulation, right to privacy and data protection, as is the case of the ‘real’ world. Just like we need social, political and economic institution for good governance and public policy we equally require institutions for the Internet governance.

Back in 2000 when the Internet was going through its initial phases of popularity a number of countries in Arabian peninsula blocked pornographic websites. The authorities in the telecommunication division basically blocked all those websites which carried certain keywords such as sex or porn. Among many others the doctor’s community suffered the most since they could not search any material, for instance, on breast cancer since the word breast was also blocked by the authorities.

Resultantly many people started to spoof the IP addresses and used Anonymiser softwares to seek access. Internet is now becoming a commodity and websites such as Facebook, Twitter or Google serve as institutions. Facebook apart from giving its users a space to share their personal and professional life stories also works as a platform to many social groups just as the search engine Google hosts a number of blogs, groups and web pages. What is ironic here that the images section of Google (images.google.com) still hosts the blasphemous caricatures, should one run a query.

Similarly, there are a number of blogs that conduct rather controversial debates on religious issues. Should it mean that we shall block Google as well? Would we have to block Google’s email service as well since it is owned by Google? Websites such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google have their reach extending to more than 100 countries with numerous translations of their website in order to make it accessible to everyone in the world.

Although the ban is temporary yet these websites would have to consider their regional policies for every country. Their regional chapters must work in close collaboration with the governments and the civil society in order to report what is considered inappropriate and what not. Internet governance can and must not be left to the governments. It is a shared responsibility among several stakeholders from the governments, civil society groups, academia, NGOs and the private sector.

The Information and Communication Technologies divisions of the above institutions are required to build a capacity and educate citizens and netizens about the pros and cons of having business with the virtual world. On Internet Government Forum, the United Nations conducts debates on such issues every year in its forum but there is hardly any presence of the civil society groups from Pakistan. Our government is supposed to have a parliamentary committee on the internet governance issues just as any other government now has. As long as there is no training and coherent policy, we will continue to hurt the sentiments of the innocent public and websites such as Facebook will continue to appear offline.

The author is a visiting research fellow at the Innovation, Management and Policy Division at the Manchester University’s Business School, UK.


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