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#FreeSpeech: Facebook under attack after blocking pages of Progressive Rock band in Pakistan

Facebook has become the latest internet giant to succumb to government censorship in Pakistan after the social network blocked users from access to the pages of a popular local rock band and a number of liberal political pages.

Members of ‘Laal’, a band well known for creating “socialist” and “progressive” rock”, confirmed that their Facebook page had been blocked.

Facebook’s move sparked outrage on social media networks and forced the Pakistani government to restore the page, which had received more than 400,000 ‘likes’.

But campaigners say that at least six other Facebook pages that promoted progressive debate in Pakistan and that had been blocked during the week remained inaccessible.

Shahzad Ahmad of the advocacy group Bytes for All Pakistan told the New York Times: “Facebook claims to be in favour of free speech, and talks about protecting political expression, but they are not.”

“For the sake of their own profits and business, they are caving in to anything the government demands.”

A spokeswoman for Facebook in London said the company blocked the pages after receiving an official request from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, which regulates internet content in Pakistan.

“While we never remove this type of content from the site entirely, like most internet services, we may restrict people from accessing it in the countries where it is determined to be illegal,” the spokeswoman said, adding that questions about why specific pages were blocked were “best addressed to the authorities who issue these orders.”

In 2008 YouTube blocked for the first time over what the government described as “non-Islamic objectionable videos”.

The video streaming service has since been blocked intermittently in the country.

Facebook was banned entirely for several months in 2010 following the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy.

According to a report published on its website, Facebook restricted access to 162 pieces of content in Pakistan between July and December and many more in some other countries, including India, where Facebook restricted access to more than 4,700 pages in the same period.

But activists said Friday that the latest blocks in Pakistan affected pages that spoke out against extremism while several extremist pages in the country were left untouched.

“This is ridiculous,” said Taimur Rahman, the lead singer of Laal, speaking before the ban on his group’s page was lifted.

“None of our content could be construed as anti-state or anti-religious, in any shape or form.”

The Facebook actions come at a time when freedom of speech is under increasing pressure in Pakistan.

Extremists have repeatedly used the country’s draconian ‘Blasphemy’ laws to bring legal action against journalists and opponents and the army and notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) service have cracked down on criticism in the media.

The government media regulator suspended broadcasts of Pakistan’s most popular news channel, Geo News, on Friday and fined it $104,000 accusing the popular TV network of defaming the military.

Several activists questioned why Facebook had not blocked other Pakistani pages that incite sectarian violence, religious extremism or hatred against minorities.

As examples, they pointed to pages administrated by supporters of Ahle Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, a notorious sectarian group that has supported attacks on Shiites; the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; and the Red Mosque, where a violent standoff between extremists and government forces in 2007 left more than 100 people dead and where a recently opened library is named for Osama bin Laden.

Facebook officials say that they resist censorship as much as possible, but their leverage is limited in countries like Pakistan where the government imposes constraints with little public debate.

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