Tech & Science

Pakistan to the Internets: Shut Up!

What happens when the president of Pakistan awkwardly interrupts a stump speech to lean to the side of his podium and sneer "Shut up" at a group of noisy spectators below? The Internet happens, of course; every smart-ass with a Youtube account promptly gets to work setting Zardari's deliciously unfortunate gaffe to pop music, in loop. But then Pakistan's government happens right back,  shutting down the entire video-sharing site for hours to keep news of the gaffe from spreading.

Four months later, here we are again. On Wednesday, Pakistan's Lahore High Court ordered the country's telecommunications agency to ban Facebook, then piled on Wikipedia, Youtube, and Twitter, after a forum of Islamic lawyers filed a petition against a Facebook page called "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day." The page found its muse in a cartoon mocking Comedy Central's decision to tamp down on South Park's depictions of the Muslim prophet, but even the original cartoonist appears to find it offensive, considering she's joined yet another Facebook group protesting the other page. In any case, the ban is now in effect until May 31, when the Pakistani court will conduct a hearing to determine whether to make it permanent.

It would be easy to point out the human-rights implications of such an action by the Pakistani government. After all, one can very validly argue against a legal system that punishes by death or life imprisonment any statement or action it considers "blasphemous." Or one can point out the hypocrisy of a government that allows the Tehrik-i-Taliban to maintain its own YouTube channel but refuses to tolerate discussion of an embarrassing political gaffe or a juvenile cartoon.

But on some level, that imbues Pakistan's most recent foray into Internet censorship with seriousness, when in fact it deserves to be recognized more for its sheer absurdity. The Pakistani government's logic is that the medium is the problem, as well as the message. So upon hearing that a single idiot decided to form an offensive Facebook group that even the original cartoonist doesn't support, their response is to ban the modern world's main instruments of information dissemination. A single tidbit of offensive content is somehow grounds to shut down the whole damn party, as if a single bite of rotten fruit should be enough to drive a person away from eating altogether.

By that standard, perhaps the Pakistan Telecommunications Agency (PTA) should also consider banning the Internet altogether, since a quick Google search will reveal that those nonsense Danish cartoons from 2006 are still online. The PTA should certainly not allow books in Pakistan, as some guy named Rushdie once penned his thoughts on the satanic verses. Nor should it permit newspapers or magazines, since the National Review has surely written all sorts of insulting things about the prophet over the years. And couldn't people just e-mail each other about the offending cartoons? The PTA should definitely ban e-mail, in that case. Or just get rid of computers altogether, since some wily programmers are probably already busy building new versions of everything previously banned.

Of course, most of what fills the pages of Web sites, social networks, magazines, books, and tweets is not problematic at all. It's useful—or plain harmless, like  cute sloth videos or virtual farm games. Speaking of which, the ban will surely add insult to injury once Pakistanis realize they've lost precious ground against their competitors in Farmville, Facebook's mind-numbingly addictive farm game. Indian Twitter user  @fakebalthakre was already plotting sabotage on Wednesday, advising his followers, "Pakisthanis can’t use FB until May 31. Excellent opportunity for Hindusthan to block water to all Pak farms on Farmville." Battle on, Internet-freedom warriors.

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