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Analysis: What you cannot see on Facebook

Updated November 07, 2014

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- Creative Commons
- Creative Commons

IN an effort towards greater transparency, social networking giant Facebook released its latest ‘Government Requests Report’ containing bare-bones data on requests they receive from countries for access to user account data, and requests to restrict access to content.

The current January-June 2014 report is the third such dataset Facebook has released, and, staying true to form, Pakistan’s requests to restrict content has increased nearly ten-fold compared to the previous period.

For Pakistanis on Facebook, this translates to 1,773 areas of the social network that we could not access as of June, and by now, that number has in all likelihood doubled.

There were also 116 requests by our government to access data from user accounts, of which 35.34 per cent resulted in the production of ‘some’ data. In other words, around 40 accounts had their privacy invaded through the state’s efforts and Facebook’s acquiescence.

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What is Facebook blocking for us, on the request of our government? Whose account data are they providing access to?

Facebook defends this back-channel dealing by stating, “We respond to valid requests relating to criminal cases. Each and every request we receive is checked for legal sufficiency and we reject or require greater specificity on requests that are overly broad or vague.”

In terms of content restrictions specific to Pakistan, they say, “We restricted access in Pakistan to a number of pieces of content primarily reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Ministry of Information Technology under local laws prohibiting blasphemy and criticism of the state.”

Absorb and contextualise this for a moment. Facebook has no office in Pakistan, and no local representatives. It does however have 17.2 million local users as of November 2014.

Keeping its deal with the government out of the limelight, Facebook is checking Pakistan’s account data requests for “legal sufficiency” based on the assumption that the state is acting in the public interest. It would be ludicrous to assume the social network’s staff could actually vet, fact-check, verify any local information, data or documents provided to them by a state agency — it would almost entirely have to be on trust and face value.

The same applies for ‘content restriction’, a more palatable version of the word censorship. Facebook must again assume the PTA and MoIT are acting in the public interest when asking to block content, under local law.

Is Facebook aware that some of our local laws run in contravention to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, of which Pakistan is a signatory? Is Facebook aware that the blasphemy law has been roundly criticised worldwide and is used as a tool of discrimination and vendetta against minority groups, often resulting in murder and public lynching? When Facebook says it approves request to censor content that contains “criticism of the state”, are we to assume the social network’s staff has read the Constitution of Pakistan and related laws, taken our state’s history into context, examined the political crises that exist, inclusive of separatist movements, and then looked at Pakistan’s requests before approving 1,773 of them ‘under local laws’?

If not, we’re in trouble. As Shahzad Ahmad, director of digital rights group Bytes For All Pakistan, points out, “We have concrete examples from the past that there have been attempts to block political expression, including that from Balochistan. About two months ago, several Facebook pages were blocked which also included Roshni, the page for left-liberal rock band Laal, and others. We saw that there was nothing blasphemous on these pages — they were pages of political expression, against fanaticism and promoting religious harmony … except for Laal, none of these pages ever came back online.”

To put it mildly, Facebook’s deal with the government is a mixture of naive, simplistic and driven less by public interest, or Facebook user interest, and more by expediency and pragmatism e.g. you scratch our back, we ensure no blanket bans on Facebook.

Given our government’s attitude towards the internet and digital rights, nothing can be expected of them in this case. It is Facebook that needs to re-evaluate its dealing with the state, placing its Pakistani users first, and recognising that accepting government requests may be hugely problematic.

“Blocking access to an entire site for years is in no way better than selective censorship. Both should be dealt with in similar ways,” says Nighat Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation. “Facebook should inform its users about the process of blocking content and how they decide what constitutes blasphemy and anti-state given the wide and vague provisions in our laws. If Facebook obliges to respond to state authorities, they are also obliged to inform its users about its policies and be transparent.”

Transparency regarding the specific parameters of the agreement between Pakistan and Facebook is the first of many steps needed, including mechanisms to appeal any invasion of privacy or content restriction, the publishing of more data regarding the specific requests made, or even a list of what has been blocked.

Until some or all of the above are put in place, Facebook users in Pakistan remain vulnerable and deprived of the right to some information because the very assumption upon which Facebook operates this deal — the idea that state agencies acts responsibly, in the public interest — is where the system is flawed.

The writer is editor of dawn.com

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Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2014