Talibanization of Web 2.0

The saga of banning and then subsequent ‘un’-banning or partially
removing the ban is a phenomenon particularly popular with the
Pakistani psyche. Even this year saw the Pakistani Cricket Board
banning several senior players (including a few life bans) over serious
charges of creating disharmony within the team; but within few months
most of them are back again amongst the probables for the next
tournament. The trend of banning (and un-banning) now seems to have
moved from cricket to the Internet—in a matter of three days,
the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has banned Facebook,
YouTube and Twitter (though the ban on YouTube has been partially
lifted at the time of going to press).

The move against Facebook followed an outcry over a page set up by a
Facebook user inviting people to draw caricatures of the Prophet
Mohammed. The Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on May 19
blocked Facebook following the Lahore High Court (LHC) order to ban the
website temporarily till May 31. This was in response to a private
petition seeking the court’s intervention. The very next day,
YouTube, owned by Google, was also blocked due to what the regulatory
authority said were links from Facebook to inflammatory videos on the
video-sharing site. The bans were apparently extended to block
Wikipedia as well. And one day after,  the Pakistani
authorities further widened the crackdown by restricting access to
microblogging sensation Twitter citing that it contains blasphemous

The Facebook page (controversial “Everybody draw Mohammed Day!” page )
in question began as a gesture of support for the animated show South
Park, which stopped a cartoon of Mohammed from airing after death
threats were made. Many would argue that creation of such a page was a
churlish act, and one which was bound to incite and ignite passions and
even hurt religious sensitivities of a large section of the population.
As expected, the protests were widespread– over two dozen Pakistani
religious groups working under the umbrella of the JuD urged the UN to
enact a global law “against blasphemy of prophets and awarding death
penalty to violators”.The decision to contact the UN and envoys from
Muslims and non-Muslim states was made at a meeting of clerics
belonging to the JuD, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan,
Tanzeem-e-Islami, Markaz-e-Ahlesunnat, Muslim Conference,
Jamat-e-Ahlehadis, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Pakistan Ulema Council and
International Katham-e-Nabuwat.

While the indignation might be justified, what can never be advocated
was the blanket ban on Facebook and subsequently all the popular
Internet sites being used, ironically, by a large section of the
Pakistani population. In fact, Pakistan should have taken a leaf out of
India’s book (though that usually does not happen)–Facebook had
blocked in India the controversial page. “Out of respect for
the local regulations, standards and customs, we have decided to
restrict access to the ‘Everyone Draw Mohammed!’ page from India, after
being contacted by authorities and reviewing the matter
closely,” says a Facebook spokesperson.

Though some unconfirmed reports claimed that about 70% people in
Pakistan want a permanent ban on the social networking website, while
another 15% support the Lahore High Court’s order to ban the
website till May 31, the fact of the matter is these blanket bans of so
many popular sites had created quite a consternation amongst many of
the hoi polloi in Pakistan. “It is a childish and immature
reaction, and has grave consequences which were not considered because
those protesting against Facebook and blocking Twitter have no
knowledge of how these sites were being used for good,” PTI
report quoted a high school teacher in Karachi as saying. “I
was counselling my students and guiding them in their ongoing studies
through Facebook. I had ex-students in touch with me for guidance
regarding their future academic decisions. Who will guide them

Another online activist said that the blockage of Twitter was an act of
censorship and a violation of basic rights. “Twitter
doesn’t even contain images so how can it be a part of the
blasphemous cartoons episode?” he asked. “They may
as well ban the whole Internet because immature reactions like this
will only act as a catalyst for further reactionary offensive acts
against Muslims online. The original offending Facebook page has
swelled to close to 100,000 followers because of Pakistan’s

And it was not as if Facebook was not willing to comply like they have
done in India. Facebook indicated that it might be compelled to
co-operate, blocking the offensive pages in order to keep its service
available. “We are very disappointed with the Pakistani
court’s decision to block Facebook without warning, and
suspect our users there feel the same way,” the company said.
“We are analysing the situation and the legal considerations,
and will take appropriate action, which may include making this content
inaccessible to users in Pakistan.” Such co-operation is the
usual route for companies such as YouTube (Google) and Facebook, which
can stop access from certain geographies.

In fact, YouTube is completely banned in just a few places, notably
China and Turkey. This sort of Talibanization of the Internet not just
reinforces the stereotype of Pakistan as a fundamental, obscurantist
Islamic state in the Western mindset, it seriously hampers the growth
of Pakistan as a modern society of the 21st century. The embarrassing
irony of the situation was that Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman
Malik joined Twitter because of the ban on Facebook, showing how
dependent the leaders and people of that country have become on online
social media. To save some face, PTA has issued an order to restore
access to YouTube. However, several hundred pages on the video sharing
website will remain blocked because of “blasphemous”
content–authorities have issued a list of 200 URLs, which they say,
should be kept blocked while the whole site needs to remain open.

Even if the cricket banning farce is repeated on the Net, the whole
episode dispels any doubt about how far the Pakistan polity is still
from accepting modernity.

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