Pakistani judges ruled to ban Facebook in the country Wednesday in anticipation of May 20, which a Facebook Page had claimed would be “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” The ban began Wednesday evening and is to be in effect at least until the end of the month. Tuesday the Page had about 42,000 fans and it’s since almost doubled to about 82,000; there are also countless imitation Pages and dozen upon dozens of opposition Pages (some opposition is voice right on the Wall of the original Page).
Some Muslims consider depicting the Prophet Mohammed offensive, which likely prompted the ban. In a previous instance of this sort of controversy, there were angry protests around the Muslim world in 2005 after a Danish newspapers published cartoons of Mohammed dressed as a terrorist.
Facebook responded to the ban with a lengthy statement late Wednesday evening, noting the company was “very disappointed” with the Pakistani courts’ decision to block the site “without warning” because just because something is offensive doesn’t mean it needs to be removed completely from the discussion. The company said it is, “analyzing the situation and the legal considerations” to take the appropriate action, which could include making the content in question inaccessible in Pakistan.
The company also said it wants to maintain an open platform for its 400 million-plus users, which may mean some will be offended by other users’ content. Facebook used Nazi content as an example of the difficulties in maintaining a global network. In some countries Nazi content is illegal, while in others it’s not saying, “but that does not mean it should be removed entirely from Facebook.”
Facebook has business to lose if this ban remains long-term or spreads to other Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian countries, given the recent deal the company signed with Cairo-based Connect Ads. The three-year deal would create culturally appropriate ads for 15 countries in the Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan, and reach more than 15 million users in a region that has been growing steadily during recent months.
Pakistani judges on the Lahore High Court issued an order to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block the Facebook web site in the country until at least May 31 in response to a petition filed by a group of lawyers called the Islamic Lawyers’ Movement; the group called the page “blasphemous.”
Otherwise, Pakistan is seeing a lot of new Facebook users. It doubled its gains in January and most recently we reported in Inside Facebook Gold that the current user count there was at 2.2 million. The Internet is not censored in Pakistan, but the government routes all traffic through a central exchange; previously the government blocked pornographic and anti-Islamic sites, as well as a ban of YouTube in 2007.
Khoram Ali Mehran of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority told CNN:
“Obviously it (the blocking of Facebook) is related to the objectionable material that was placed on Facebook. That is why it is blocked. We have blocked it for an indefinite amount of time. We are just following the government’s instructions and the ruling of the Lahore High Court. If the government decides to unblock it then that’s what we will do.”
The idea for the Facebook Page sprung out of a recent episode of the cartoon show “South Park” in which the Muhammad was depicted, although the network censored part of the show when it aired. Consequently several artists and others took to Facebook and the Internet to depict Muhammad ostensibly to support freedom of speech; the Facebook Page notes:
“Hopefully this page will spark seroius [sic] debates in international forums. This page will continue to exist and the date will remain the same. PS: We are not trying to slander the average muslim , its not a muslim/islam hatepage [sic]. We simply want to show the extremists that threaten to harm people because of their Mohammed depictions, that we’re not afraid of them. That they can’t take away our right to freedom of speech by trying to scare us to silence.”
The Page advertises that “May 20th 2010 is draw Mohammed day! Help spread knowledge about this important day – invite your friends!” The administrator has a blog and there’s also a web site corresponding to the Page. In an upcoming series of stories Inside Facebook, we’ll be examining the relationship between some religions and their Facebook presence.