Facebook & Twitter face Pakistan blasphemy conundrum

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Facebook and Twitter have been put in a rather difficult position by the Pakistani authorities after they were asked to assist the government in identifying Pakistani citizens who have posted blasphemous content on the sites.

The request includes identifying people within Pakistan to enable them to be prosecuted, but also Pakistani’s based overseas who the Government would then seek to have extradited back to Pakistan to face charges.

Blasphemy in Pakistan

Blasphemy or offending and insulting Islam is a very serious offence in Pakistan with the maximum penalty being the death sentence. It is also a highly controversial and incendiary issue in the country. Lynching’s of those suspected of committing blasphemy is a regular occurrence and the government now seems to be stepping up its efforts to crack down on the issue.

Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif has indicated that his government plans to get tough on the issue which he described as an “unpardonable offence” in a statement posted on his party’s official Twitter account.

More details were provided by the country’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who said in a statement that he would be taking “any steps necessary” to deal with the issue. He went on to say an official at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington had contacted both Facebook and Twitter to seek their assistance in identifying Pakistani’s sharing content which is offensive to Islam.

He was quoted in Pakistani English-language newspaper, the Dawn, as saying “Facebook and other service providers should share all information about the people behind this blasphemous content with us.”

Criticism of the crackdown

The surge in attacks on blasphemous content is however seen by human rights campaigners as a tool for oppression in Pakistan.

Blasphemy laws are often used to attack religious minorities in the country and Digital Rights groups have also highlighted them as an attack on freedom of speech in the country.

Others meanwhile suggest that the laws are merely being used to attack political dissent in the country. The recent disappearance of five liberal online bloggers who were accused of blasphemy is just one such example of this.

Social Media dilemma

The request creates a problem for global social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. They will usually claim that they try to adhere to local laws in each country where they operate. But laws around issues like blasphemy are problematic because, in much of the world, they are not even an offence and are viewed as an attack on freedom of speech.

Complying with such requests is likely to lead to significant criticism in other, much more profitable, markets, so it is a tough call to make from a business point of view.

It is therefore not surprising to see Facebook tiptoeing around the issue in their statement. They have said they review all such requests from governments carefully “with the goal of protecting the privacy and rights of our users”.

It is thought they have agreed to send a team to the country to discuss the issue with the authorities there, although no confirmation of this has been given.

Twitter was even more cautious and has refused to comment on the issue at all.

Ultimately, this should be a decision which most people believe should be governed by a moral compass, not a business one. Blasphemy is a crime which should have no place in the 21st century and people should be free to criticise religion in whatever way they choose without fear of reprisals.

But the fact is that money speaks and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proposals to allow people in different countries to vote on what they found appropriate content and then give them what they want is a clear indicator of that.

So, for now, at least, Facebook users in Pakistan will have to continue to be careful about posting content which is critical of Islam on the site, unless they are using anonymous accounts and privacy tools such as a VPN to effectively protect their identity. If they aren’t they will continue to be running the risk of jail or even worse.