Facebook access was restored in Pakistan over the weekend, slightly less than two weeks after the service was banned following outcry over a Page showing illustrations the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
The Page was called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” and featured a variety of user-submitted cartoons of the prophet. Some Muslims consider images of Mohammed to be offensive, they did in this case, and Facebook has removed the Page.
Pakistani judges on the Lahore High Court issued an order to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on May 19 to block the Facebook web site until at least May 31. The order was response to a petition filed by a group of lawyers called the Islamic Lawyers’ Movement against Facebook, who considered the Page (and Facebook, by extension) “blasphemous.”
The Page at one point had more than 82,000 fans, and had inspired several imitators but many more anti-”Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” Pages. Currently there are still a handful of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” Pages on Facebook, the largest one appears to have more than 3,100 fans.
Days before the Pakistani courts lifted the ban the government in Bangladesh also blocked Facebook, citing both reasons having to do with the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” Page and inflammatory political material uploaded about Bangladeshi politicians. Protests in Bangladesh following the ban took place on at least one university campus, Dhaka University, where students protested the ban as interfering with freedom of expression. Service has still not been restored in the country.
Facebook’s initial response to the Pakistani ban was a statement that celebrated the benefits of sharing information, even at the cost of allowing ideas that may not be popular, such as Nazi propaganda. In a subsequent communication Facebook told The Guardian that the company had restricted access to this Page in Pakistan and other countries, “out of respect for local rules,” but that it was still active elsewhere. That the Page is no longer viewable in the U.S. could mean that Facebook deleted it completely.
Pakistan’s Secretary of the Ministry of Information Technology Najibullah Malik told the Associated Press:
“In response to our protest, Facebook has tendered their apology and informed us that all the sacrilegious material has been removed from the URL,” and that Facebook told the government “nothing of this sort will happen in the future.”
Although other web services, like Google, have censored some content for certain countries, Facebook has generally tried to avoid removing controversial content.
The Mohammed Page issue affects Facebook and its users around the world — especially as it has grown in Muslim countries across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The company is clearly trying to take a more delicate approach to local beliefs, even when those beliefs limit the information that users can share around the world. Another example of this local focus: a recent three-year deal the company signed with Cairo-based Connect Ads was meant to create culturally appropriate ads for 15 countries in the Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan.