Pakistan Quashing Net Freedoms, Citizens Speaking Out

Yesterday, on orders from a Pakistani court, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked access to Facebook. The move was in response to a page on the site called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," exhorting Facebook users to draw depictions of Mohammed, in the purported hope of spurring debate about Muslims' objection to images of the founder of their faith. Today, the PTA expanded their ban to include Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube, citing a rise in "objectionable content."

Twitter, however, has remained online, and many of Pakistan's tech-savvy have been venting frustration there. Shoaib Taimur (@shobz) captured the basic sentiment of the Twitterati in one remark:

note to everyone: I oppose the ban on websites. I dont endorse Blasphemy but curtailing our freedom of speech is too much #fb

The Facebook group is broadly considered to be a tasteless and tactless effort, but the ham-handed response by the Pakistani courts and the PTA is worse. Huma Imtiaz (@HumaImtiaz), a Pakistani journalist, sees the work of Islamic hard-liners in the action of the government. In a blog post, she argues that the PTA has previously shown great ability to block individual pages showing content that would be damning to the Pakistani government, but is now responding with blanket censorship to appease a radical minority.

Sabeen Mahmud (@sabeen) and Dr. Awab Alvi (@DrAwab) organized a press conference this afternoon to speak out against censorship.  As Mahmud tweeted later:

I have been insisting that the outrage needs to be about Internet censorship not FB. @kidvai

The press conference quickly devolved into an accusatory shouting match, with the media taking the side of the government.  As Dr. Alvi tweeted afterward:

Safely home Sad experience, our point we condemn cartoon caricature but Not a blanket ban on websites, became issue of muslim non-muslim

And Mahmud followed, sarcastically:

>> Well done mainstream media. You outdid yourself today. To think we marched on the streets for your freedom.

Oh wait, I remember now! You thought I shouldn't have expressed outrage and should have watered down my stance >>

It's heartening to see individuals standing up against censorship for their freedom of speech and freedom to information. What's happening in Pakistan right now is a prime example of the danger the internet faces of losing its open, global nature, and becoming a series of national networks, subject to censorship, borders, and the whims of policymakers. Some of Pakistan's Twitterati predict the bans will be lifted in the coming days, and I hope they're right.

It's nearly midnight in Karachi now, but I expect these individuals and this situation will be active and exciting to follow tomorrow.  On Twitter, I'd recommend following @sabeen, @DrAwab, @HaroonRiaz, and @HumaImtiaz for good, regular (English-language) updates.