The news about the banning of Facebook page of the popular Laal band earlier this month came as a shock. The page that has more than 400,000 followers was charged for allegedly carrying anti-state content. Though there were other pages as well which were not accessible in the country, the furore created by supporters and fans of this band was unmatched and led to Facebook lifting the ban within two days.
There were rumours the band had itself asked for the ban to gain more popularity and that was why it could get it lifted with such ease. The band on the other hand issued a clarification. It said it won relief only because the Facebook management was convinced that the allegations against it were not valid.
There was a lot of finger-pointing about who asked for the ban and no one in the country was ready to accept responsibility. While the government departments kept shifting responsibility, there was no transparency involved. The whole process of identifying objectionable content and then forwarding it to the social media sites is still not clear been clarified and is hidden from the general public.
Human rights activists are worried that such measures would deprive the citizens of their right to disagree with the state and criticise it. While they believe blasphemous content and hate speech have to be checked, they call for a process that should be clear, judicious and self-explanatory.
Nighat Dad, an internet rights activist and director of Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan tells TNS that policies of corporations like Twitter, Facebook and Google vary from country to country. Facebook’s policy is very clear, she says, adding that in its recently published transparency report it clarified that it accommodates requests from different states and in the case of Pakistan, the requests came from Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
Dad says the most important issue here is how to challenge the legality of the PTA. According to the law the PTA has no legal authority to forward requests for blocking the content directly to these companies. She explains it is the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) which directs PTA to block certain content but there are no rules about who will be the members of this committee.
Taimur Rahman, leader of Laal band, tells TNS that he was appalled to know about his page getting blocked and shared this development with the fans and followers. The local and international media, he says, supported them a lot and carried news, features, and opinion pieces on the issue. Leading global newspapers, like The New York Times, also carried the news which put a lot of pressure on Facebook. It realised the allegations against the band’s page were unfounded and withdrew its decision, he adds.
Rahman says he is an academic and known as a peace-loving person who has founded a band and manages its page. “Shall criticising the government and asking for the rights of oppressed communities be declared anti-state?” he questions.
Sources in the PTA, however, deny any direct role of the authority in the whole process. They clarify that the Ministry of Information Technology (MOIT) and its inter ministerial committee on websites review the content blocking requests sent by people and forward the links to PTA for onward communication to ISPs and social media websites. The authority simply complies with the orders.
Nighat Dad objects to the practice and says that the companies should resist such requests, challenge their legality and question laws which PTA cites while communicating with these companies. Censoring pages like Laal Band, Roshni and ‘Taliban are Zaliman’ puts a big question mark on Facebook’s policy which talks about respect for freedom of expression online.
Dad points out that many Facebook pages which spread hate speech and incite violence are openly propagating their agenda. On the other hand, the progressive and liberal pages which spread the message of peace and plainly criticise the government’s policies, condemn terrorist attacks and publish the content which criticises government performance and activities, are banned.
The Facebook authorities share their version on one of their pages which states that Facebook has blocked 162 pages upon a request from the Government of Pakistan. It elaborates that when governments believe that something on the Internet violates their laws, they may contact Facebook to restrict access to that content.
The statement adds: “Requests are scrutinised to determine if the specified content does indeed violate local laws. If, after a thorough legal analysis, we determine content appears to violate local law, then we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory.”
Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director, Bytes For All (B4A), says Pakistani government has no legal jurisdiction on any of these companies so they are not bound to obey any requests of the Pakistani government. However, due to their financial/income generation models, these companies usually give in to authorities to protect their financial gains.
For example, in Facebook’s case, the PTA is arm-twisting Facebook because the company earns a lot of money from advertisements from Pakistan. That is why Facebook wishes to keep the platform accessible at all costs. Youtube, on the other hand, is pushing back because they do not have any working financial model from its Pakistani audience.
Ahmad says unfortunately, there are too many political dynamics which are playing in Pakistan when it comes to filtering and censorship of Internet in the country, where these companies and government authorities are culprits at equal level. “Governments want more and more control on cyberspace and companies want to continue to make more and more money using the data of its users,” he says.
Regarding the recent case of several blocked pages, Ahmad strongly condemns Facebook for assisting the Government of Pakistan in its efforts to curb political expression and free speech in the country. He says that censorship of content is not a solution but a problem. “We also believe that even to counter hate speech, citizens should have platforms accessible for more alternate speech,” he concludes.
Internet researcher Fouad Bajwa says Facebook has defined a criterion for responding to what it terms as “valid requests relating to criminal cases” where each and every request Facebook receives is checked for legal sufficiency and it may reject or require greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague.