March 27, 2017
by Hemant Mehta
It was disturbing to learn last week that Pakistani officials had asked Twitter and Facebook to identify citizens who “shared material deemed offensive to Islam.” In a nation with incredibly strict blasphemy laws and where so-called blasphemers have been slaughtered, the companies would’ve effectively been issuing death warrants for people by complying with the request.
As far as we knew, though, neither company said yes.
But according to reports today from the Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn, Facebook has blocked approximately 85% of blasphemous material reported on the social network:
Interior Secretary Arif Khan said in his report that Facebook had responded to their letter and showed its willingness to remove content deemed blasphemous.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Chairman Ismael Shah said a team, comprising 25 members, has been working to search blasphemous content online. He said that the authority has so far taken action against 40 such pages.
He said the Facebook administration has realised the issue and “assured to comply with our demand”.
“Facebook agreeing to our demands is a big achievement,” the PTA chief said.
It’s unclear if they’re just talking out of their ass. After all, any of us can report “blasphemous” or offensive content on the site and the Facebook algorithm may just take it down automatically if it includes certain words. Hell, we’ve had several posts on our own Facebook page reported and taken down in the same manner even though I could make an argument for why our posts were humorous, satirical, or just making a damn good point.
Plus, if Facebook really was complying with some request from the Pakistani government, why wouldn’t all the reported pages have come down?
Facebook still needs to make very clear, publicly, that it will never comply with such requests. Free speech regarding religious criticism matters far more than someone’s feelings getting hurt because Islam was the subject of it. Not every reported offense deserves to be taken seriously.
Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast.