Commentary

Facebook Is Also Freedom

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As everyone and their mother piles on to Facebook for its transgressions against online privacy, it's worth remembering that the site -- along with other social media like Twitter, and the Internet in general -- is a huge force for good. Among other things, it's a tool for spreading information and organizing political dissent in other parts of the world.

I kind of doubt that Mark Zuckerberg or the rest of Facebook's management is really aware or cares about this aspect of Facebook's popularity in countries ruled by repressive regimes; they frankly don't seem to share the kind of ideological commitment to liberty that Sergey Brin displayed in his confrontation with the Chinese government over censorship of Google's search results.

But the fact remains that Facebook and Twitter are symbols of freedom -- and therefore targets for censorship by authoritarian governments and extremists. The most recent example of this is Pakistan, where the government banned Facebook and Twitter when secular activists around the world staged a controversial "Draw Muhammad" day on May 20 to protest intimidation of political cartoonists by Islamist radicals.

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The government's heavy-handed reaction sparked protests by commentators writing in Pakistan's leading newspaper, Dawn. One commentator, Irfan Husain, wrote:

All these childish measures only serve to remind us how out of step we are with the rest of the world. The truth is that it would have been a simple matter to block the offending Facebook page that was carrying the blasphemous drawings... For PTA to take such an extreme step, there is something more to it than a desire to protect Pakistanis from sacrilegious Internet content. I suspect this decision echoes a controversy that took place last year when legislation was going to be moved to ban the use of cellphones and the Internet to spread jokes and allegations against the president and the government. The proposal became a joke itself around the world, and was quietly shelved... Interestingly, no other Muslim country has taken a similar measure, indicating that Pakistanis are more easily upset by any hint of blasphemy than our brethren elsewhere. And yet, according to Google, the popular search engine, the word 'sex' is typed in more often by Pakistanis than by Internet users in any other country. Clearly, we are not entirely consistent in our attachment to religious edicts.

Meanwhile another pundit, Mahir Ali, wrote:

... it could safely be said that the majority of the protesters who took to the streets in many a Pakistani city and town would have found it difficult to explain to anyone the nature of the Internet, let alone the particularities of Facebook ... The legal bans are likely to be renewed when they expire. But why stop there? Why not outlaw the Internet altogether? That may not save much electricity, but it will surely help to keep the nation shrouded in ignorance; it could serve as a virtual burka without so much as a slit for sore eyes... In Pakistan today, there is no dearth of issues about which citizens ought to get worked up. But there really should be no place on the list for a solitary Facebook page... The Islamophobic intent of some of the contributors to the Facebook event is unlikely, in the final analysis, to stir half as much prejudice as the fanatical Pakistani reaction.
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