Saturday, May 29, 2010

VIEW: Cyber Wars: Who killed Facebook? Not I - (The Un-Redacted Version)

Published in Daily Times / 29 May 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Try clicking on a news item about Pakistani students protesting the Facebook ban in Google. Try googling Muhammad for that matter. Just try it.

You cannot, can you?
Not if your internet service provider (ISP) is anything like mine. Not since the crackdown on Facebook.

And all because of the event planned for May 20, 2010 in the far recesses of cyberspace — an event that prompted Facebook users to start a campaign requesting other users to initiate a boycott. But a simple appeal to shun the social networking site that was hosting a page encouraging caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was apparently not enough. Making the ‘choice’ to quit did not quite satisfy. No, the users had to make a bigger statement.

No one knows how the religious parties got wind of this or at what point did the Lahore High Court (LHC) decide to enforce compliance to the boycott. But they did. Give them (the religious parties) enough rope and they will hang you. On May 19, 2010, they got the rope, from the judiciary, no less, and passed the sentence.

Facebook went dark. In Pakistan anyway.

With their newly issued licence to kill freedom, Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) went on a rampage, shooting down all ‘offensive links’ that came their way. Innocent Blackberries came in the line of fire briefly.

Now this may have been joyously heralded as a victory, but the nationwide ban on Facebook signals an impending death of democracy. Banning YouTube and Flickr justifies these fears. Though the ban on YouTube and Flickr was lifted after a few days, one wonders if this is the beginning of the end.

The problem with this ‘appeal’ was that before this anti-Facebook movement was launched, few had heard of the event. It is ironic that by rising en masse, the tidal wave of protests also raised the caricature story from the depths of obscurity to the heights of notoriety. In this world notoriety is not necessarily a bad thing for attention seekers. So this was pointless. Those who use the site for ‘social networking’ were unlikely to go hunting for the offensive content. They might have come across it by mistake. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) endured far worse humiliation at the hands of his enemies. His family was not immune from personal attacks. What is more, his word was challenged often by his closest companions. The tactics he used to counter these attacks would have disappointed the present day mullahs. A lethal combination of forbearance and compassion to silence his worst critics worked wonders.

So what have the boycotters established with this charade? How much do they love their Prophet (PBUH)? Or how much did this anger the Muslims? The world knows. What they do not know and probably never will is that when the going gets tough, we do not always spontaneously combust. That we, like our Prophet (PBUH), can take this and far worse without compromising on our principles.

Trying to fight one voice by silencing 180 million is not very bright. The alternative? Life, like a web browser, has options. Facebook-wallahs suggest blocking the offensive page for Pakistan. That is one. Quit — this is for the user — two. Ignore — this is for the state — three. Or stay and make your voice heard. Surfing the remains of the internet showed a lot of likeminded individuals out there who would choose this over the ban.

Now that the doors to Facebook have been temporarily shuttered, one wonders who gains from this aside from the religious factions and the users urging the boycott in the first place. The swiftness of LHC response seems to be politically motivated. Could this be a diabolical plot disguised as a religious reform to prevent free spirited souls from speaking out? Was this ‘event’ just a pretext for authorities looking for loopholes in the free speech clause? If so, you just gave it to them on a cyber platter. Using the Constitution to target constitutional rights – that is a new one. It is a crime against the people. But this time the people happened to be complicit in the crime. After the court order, a dangerous precedent has been set. Not that there haven’t been such attempts before. Back then civil society had some say in the matter.

Since the ban, many Facebook users have been sent underground and proxy servers have surfaced. And all the while the PTA has been hot on the trail, shutting down proxy sites as soon as they are discovered. Chasing down individual users who have chosen to bypass a tyrannical ruling somehow does not fit in with the official storyline of containing violence through the ban. Forcing them out of their home is bad enough. How unsporting of the PTA to stalk them across the internet to ensure compliance.

Had the moderate forces not joined in with extremist voices, this would have fizzled out in time. Instead, the users gave them an inch (temporary boycott), now they are asking for a mile (lifelong ban). And you wonder why the Taliban feel at home here. Yahoo News finally allowed access to the students protesting Facebook ban story. Names of the dissenters had been withheld to protect their identity. Standing up for what they believe in should not give the moderates the heebie-jeebies, just as falling in line with the fanatics should not give their ‘jihad against Facebook’ legitimacy. The longer the Facebook remains on trial, the harder it is to mount a rescue mission to free our rights or prevent a recurrence.

For Pakistanis, the right to speak is hard-earned. This ban shows that their days of looking over the shoulder are not behind them yet. Is free speech dead or just stunned? The court will rule on May 31, 2010. The people can rule today.

The End

2nd Image taken from: http://www.franklyfranklin.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/facebook_blackberry.gif

Update: 31 May 2010: Facebook access: restored.

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