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Pakistan's Facebook dilemma

Publication Date : 04-08-2014

 

As of August 2014, there are 15.4 million Pakistanis on Facebook, representing approximately 8.5 per cent of the country’s total population; a virtual city set to rival Karachi in terms of sheer numbers.

Without a doubt, Facebook is Pakistan’s largest social network, and — unlike when it was banned over ‘Draw Prophet Muhammad Day’ in 2010 — few would now argue that the site is simply ‘a waste of time’ or only for the ‘elite’ in society.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) proved the political value of Facebook in the May 2013 general elections; many entrepreneurs, businesses, entire industries big and small are dependent on social media for daily work; the audience ranges across all social strata, from urban populations to rural, all communicating, sharing, mobilising, forming relationships, and yes, seeking pure entertainment.

With the help of ultra-cheap smartphones flooding the markets coupled with the launch of 3G, telcos are pouring millions into advertising Facebook and Twitter access — often free access — to customers, and Facebook itself ensured its pre-eminent status in December 2013 by adding Urdu into its officially supported languages for the platform.

The value that Facebook is bringing to Pakistani society is undeniable, and given that 2013 estimates put the social network’s expanding reach at a rate of one local user every 12 seconds, Mark Zuckerberg’s giant is going to be a permanent fixture in Pakistan for a long time.

The future looks ever bright. That is if we do not see a sudden, permanent ban on the platform, courtesy the powers that be.

Facebook is not without its flaws, and some very serious issues have emerged that raise questions about how the government, and society, need to tackle the misuse of the network.

Violence against women on Facebook in the form of threats, blackmail and harassment through misuse of personal information via hacking — and often otherwise — is becoming more common, resulting in dangerous real-world consequences.

Hate speech is a familiar sight on Facebook, and given that a large amount of such speech is in Urdu script or Roman Urdu, reporting it to Facebook using the mechanisms in place is largely futile.

Blasphemy accusations over material that is shared, liked or just appearing in an individual’s newsfeed have occurred, resulting in arrests, as in the case of Junaid Hafeez, a visiting lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan.

Allegations of blasphemy on Facebook also triggered the recent riots in Gujranwala leading to the deaths of three female members of the Ahmadi community, two of whom were minors.

Finally, the issue of proscribed outfits ranging from the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan using Facebook to communicate, organise and recruit is a very real threat.

The knee-jerk reaction to such growing problems, as in the case of the blanket ban on YouTube, is what human rights activists and internet stakeholders fear.

Given that there are currently no cybercrime laws beyond the outdated and largely inapplicable Electronic Transactions Ordinance (ETO), 2002, there is very little law enforcers can do to address criminal activities carried out on Facebook. A new Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill has been waiting to be passed by the assemblies for over a year now, with next to no attention paid to the issue.

Legislation alone, however, is hardly going to solve the Facebook dilemma. How will such laws be used (or misused)? Who will they benefit and who will remain vulnerable, given that so far only left-leaning, secular groups, religious minorities, homosexuals and those critical of the state have faced blocks and bans online?

What mechanisms will be in place for an investigation involving Facebook? How will those empowered by the state build a working relationship with the social network, given the mess we have seen in the ongoing YouTube ban? What about the ever-present threat of blasphemy accusations on social media?

Facebook is here, complete with the values that govern the social network — values such as open access to information, speed of information flow, a focus on creating social impact with empowered individuals built into its very structure.

While millions have embraced the platform, many of these values have unexpected consequences, or even come into direct conflict with those governing Pakistani society, with freedom of religious thought and expression being the most prominent case in point. There is little basic understanding of the platform, especially in relation to privacy and security.

Unless the dilemmas Facebook poses are raised and addressed at every level, in every institution, from classrooms to parliament, from the workplace to courts, to the nuclear family and beyond, the massive gains the social network is giving the nation will likely be lost.

This loss will either come in the form of draconian laws set up and exercised out of ignorance and personal gain, or worse, a national-level incident involving Facebook that is dealt with a blanket ban of the network. The negative impact of such a ban could only be measurable against the level of ineptitude that would allow this to occur.


 

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