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Young Pakistanis go into Facebook withdrawal syndrome

Written by Shahrezad Samiuddin |
May 30, 2010 2:46:05 pm

Young Pakistanis go into Facebook withdrawal syndrome
Facebook,YouTube,Flickr,bits of Wikipedia —all disappeared in a whiff of cybersmoke. As the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA),acting on the orders of the Lahore High Court,blocked these websites (the ruling was directed in particular towards Facebook,for allowing one of its groups to host Draw Mohammad Day),for many web users in Pakistan,you may as well have banned the internet.

Indeed,shortly after Facebook,YouTube and Flickr were banned,internet usage in Pakistan fell by 25 per cent. And then,inexplicably,another 800 websites that were not mentioned in the court order were made inaccessible by the PTA. Without that rare phenomenon —an explanation. In the meantime,Facebook itself has removed the group in question as Pakistanis eagerly await the High Court’s next hearing on May 31. As rumours about the next cyber-casualty run rife,many schoolchildren fret they’ll be banned from their homework helpmeet Google next. Indeed,what is next on the hit list? Anything more popular than the government?
Or,dare we say: more popular than the president?
Two days after the ban,an email entitled,‘Where were you when Facebook was banned?’, sent paradoxically through Facebook,was circulated to several users in Pakistan. Mailed by a group with Marxist leanings,the email goes on a disjointed rant about how right-wing parties shouldn’t win,and seems to be under the impression that every disgruntled FB user who receives the mail is a willing Marxist recruit. Well,they got one thing right. For Pakistani FB users,many of whom lived to air every living and breathing moment on their status updates,the banning of the site was akin to,if not closer to the heart,than Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and Zia-ul-Haq’s plane crash. The ban crept up on them unawares,entered their homes and actually changed their day-to-day life (although it could be argued that for some the ban will actually be real-life enhancing. But I’ll save that for another article).

The problem with this protest is,none of the links in the ‘Where were you…’ email can be accessed — they’ve all been banned! As the page they lead to euphemistically explains,‘access has been restricted’. Where indeed do you go to share the trauma?
Not surprisingly,there’s a big buzz in town around two words that begin with the letters P and S. And it’s not the beleaguered Pakistan Steel. Here,across the border from you,we’ve discovered the guilty pleasures of using the proxy server. And guys,it is simpler than learning your ABC (wink wink).

So what did the ban achieve? To assess that,it might be useful to revisit the spark that created this fire. It started with an episode of South Park,an American sitcom which was to show the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit. What fewer people know,mainly because their respective followers thankfully chose to ignore it,is that Jesus and the Buddha also appeared on the show,watching porn and snorting cocaine respectively. When the producers of South Park received death threats,the makers censored Prophet Muhammad’s appearance on the show,which prompted a Seattle-based cartoonist to post a drawing on Facebook,suggesting that May 20 be declared Draw Mohammad Day,which in turn prompted someone to start a group on Facebook by the same name. That should have given everyone an inkling of what censorship achieves: uncontrolled curiosity and an OTT reaction.

In quick succession,the High Court unleashed its bans,the PTA went crazy blocking sundry sites,several editorials condemning the ban appeared in the press,TV anchors criticised the ban and mere mortals googled the words ‘Draw Mohammad Day’. And suddenly,everyone was clamouring to find out more about some FB group that didn’t deserve the time of day. Just as the majority of people remember Salman Rushdie for only one book. How about all stakeholders in the banning game give such enviable attention and take such speedy action on the electricity breakdowns I have put up with every few hours? How about acting on unchecked inflation? Or the rape of women?

Indeed,practising Muslims should take a page out of the Prophet’s book: He chose to ignore a woman who insulted him and threw her refuse on him whenever he passed by her house. When it didn’t happen for a few days,he enquired after her health and discovered that she was indeed unwell. Uncontrolled rants and over-reactions —that’s precisely the kind of thing he chose to ignore.

In the age of the Internet (yes it is!) when we’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is not insulted by something or the other on the Internet,how many ‘offensive’ things can you possibly ban? How about the High Court passing an order banning YouPorn? While 25per cent of Pakistani Internet users wasted time socialising on Facebook,guess what much of the remaining 75 per cent were doing? How about banning some of what keeps them busy? Or is that not unIslamic enough? The prescient Gabbar Singh got it right when he said “Bahut na-insaafi hai.”
The author is a Karachi-based features writer with Dawn

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