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Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Thursday, 20 May 2010 11:59 UK

Pakistanis divided over internet restrictions

Pakistanis woke up on Thursday to find access to popular websites Facebook and YouTube blocked after a government crackdown on websites seen to be hosting un-Islamic content. The BBC's Aleem Maqbool reports on the reaction from Peshawar.

Anti-Facebook protesters in Lahore
The Facebook dispute has provoked huge demonstrations in Pakistan

"This site is restricted" is the plain message on a white background that most Pakistanis have been getting when they try to access the Facebook website.

It follows a High Court ruling ordering all internet service providers in the country to block the popular networking site until further notice.

What triggered the action was a Facebook group inviting people to draw, and post, cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

'Disrespectful'

"I am grateful to the High Court judges for this verdict," says Fida Gul, smiling. He is from the Islamic Lawyers Movement, who campaigned to get Facebook banned.

Muhammed Jawad
Facebook is a great community, but there are some people on it who are against Muslims and upload these pictures knowing they are going to create anger and hatred
Muhammed Jawad

At his office in downtown Peshawar, Mr Gul says the petition was filed on behalf of all Muslims and was a necessary step.

"We needed to provide a message to non-Muslims not to disrespect our prophet."

All of the web-users we found at Khattak internet cafe in Peshawar said they were Facebook members.

"Of course it's totally wrong that there is a page like this trying to hurt Muslims," says Mustafa Haqqani, 20. "But you shouldn't just block the whole site."

Others, too, talked on the one hand of their anger at the idea of people posting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but on the other, of alternative responses to dealing with the issue.

"Facebook is a great community," says Muhammed Jawad, 20. "But there are some people on it who are against Muslims and upload these pictures knowing they are going to create anger and hatred. These people should have been banned."

Most younger people seem to have similar opinions.

"I'm one of those who is a great fan of Facebook and use it every day," says Zulficar Ali Wazir, 30. "My friends all post and share news stories and articles on our Facebook pages. There must be a million Pakistanis using it.

"The answer was for the Facebook administrators themselves to take action against groups like this - not for our courts to ban it."

Over-reaction

There were one or two people in the internet cafe who thought that a temporary ban was fine, as a means of lodging protest, but most thought it was a step too far.

Reba Shahid
I am not surprised by this Facebook ruling - it was a sadly predictable next step
Reba Shahid,
Editor internet magazine, Spider

Others suggested blocking only that section of the site that was offensive, rather than the entire site.

"The whole website may not be against the Muslim community," said Mr Gul.

"But we were advised that it was not possible to ban only that portion of it showing the sketches.

"So we were constrained to file this petition to ban this whole website in Pakistan, and we are very pleased that has now happened."

Many here see the bans on Facebook and YouTube as an over-reaction. It is not the first time it has happened.

In trying to block access to a particular YouTube video in early 2008, the Pakistani authorities disrupted access to the entire YouTube website globally for several hours.

That may have been inadvertent, but there have been previous official directives to ban websites in the same way Facebook has been banned.

"As someone who has monitored bans in Pakistani cyberspace in the past, I am not surprised by this Facebook ruling," said Reba Shahid, editor of the Karachi-based internet magazine, Spider. "It was a sadly predictable next step.

"Pakistan is already portrayed in a negative light abroad, as a backward place with political unrest. Banning first Facebook and now YouTube and others really doesn't help us dispel those perceptions.

"The internet is something positive and a place where individuals can be expressive. It is worrying that the authorities here don't give a second thought to restricting our use of it in this way."

Pushing the boundaries

Ms Shahid says the ones that will suffer are Pakistan's internet users and the country's businesses that advertise on sites like Facebook.

Facebook protest
Many women have taken to the streets against Facebook

"Of course, no one here endorses this particular page on Facebook, but completely blocking access to such a popular website is something that has upset a lot of people too.

"A few years back, the same thing happened when there was a blanket ban on the whole "blogspot" domain, because some bloggers had chosen to republish the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish cartoonist."

There have been some street demonstrations here against Facebook.

While they may be small in scale and sporadic, they are reminders of the much larger and often violent protests in Pakistan following the publication of those, now infamous, cartoons of late 2005.

Issues like this are likely to arise again in the future, as boundaries are pushed further, and global internet reach increases.

Web users in Pakistan have been left wondering how next those issues will affect them.



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