31 May 2010

Pakistan opens door to Facebook after a change

A court in Pakistan has ruled that Pakistan's telecommunications companies should once more allow access to Facebook traffic. Reports can be found in many locations including the Guardian,  CNN, and Al Jazeera.

The reporting is slightly confused about what exactly has happened. Everyone seems to agree that the court has dropped a requirement to block all Facebook traffic, and that the court has made clear that it will order whatever blocking it deems necessary to avoid the importation of illegal content.

The AP reports that Facebook officials "apologized" for the offending page. A Pakistani government official is quoted as saying the "blasphemous material has been removed from the URL". Reports are not clear what that means, precisely. It appears that Facebook may have deleted the entire offending "page" with the material that is accused of violating Pakistani law. In an effort to confirm the status, I have attempted to access the material from my home in London: where it is not illegal. I can't find it. I surmise that the page is probably deleted or suspended globally.

I have been unable to locate a press release on Facebook's own corporate page, nor do I see any discussion of the issue on Facebook's blog.

If it is true that Facebook has, in effect, globally deleted the Page that was the cause of the legal problem, then I suspect that the status quo will not last very long.

First, other Facebook users have already set up at least one new Group that appears to violate the same Pakistani legal principles as the deleted Page. I have no doubt that Pakistani officials will very soon find something else on Facebook which will cause problems. If Facebook really wants to get into the business of squashing whole pages in an effort to comply with the law of a single country, then they may be very busy indeed.

Second, many Facebook customers who live outside Pakistan are already expressing their upset about what they perceive as an unfair regulation of "their" communication by the government of a "foreign" country. This could produce a commercial back-lash against Facebook, similar to the backlash suffered by CompuServe during their feud with Germany in the 1990's concerning pornographic content.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am not in this article criticising Pakistan for enforcing its law. Quite the contrary. The government and courts of Pakistan are responsible for enforcing the law of Pakistan, in the same way that the government and courts of the United States are responsible for enforcing the law of the United States.

I am instead questioning Facebook's business judgment if they have, in fact, globally blocked an entire FB Page in an effort to comply with the law of a single country. The obvious solution to this problem, and one which I predict will win in the end, involves managing distribution of content on a national borders basis. If they have not done so already, I believe that Facebook should be launching a global education exercise to explain to national content regulators around the world how content CAN be limited by geography. Facebook already provides tools that assist with that very task.