Can Governments Rightfully Issue a Facebook Ban?

As connecting worldwide and sharing information becomes easier through tools like smartphones and social networking sites, many governments that have traditionally been able to squash the flow of information are faced with new problems in controlling it. Rather than allowing innovation to take its course, many governments are choosing to ban the tools that make sharing easy. Whether it’s the Chinese government’s ban of Facebook and Google or the Blackberry ban in India and Saudi Arabia, we’re seeing more and more tech bans come into effect worldwide. But how does these bans effect tech nerds worldwide? Does putting a ban in place really stop the transfer of information?

Consider yourself a Facebook user in present day China. One of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet one of the most controlled. In the rural village of Urumqi in the Xianjiang province of western China, a riot breaks out over ethnic divides that leaves 150 people dead and over 1,000 injured. You want to hear about it. You want to know what happened. So you immediately turn to the Internet where you know you can find pictures and details of the happenings. The government has a different agenda. To quell news of the riot and to prevent its spread, the Chinese government shuts down Facebook and Twitter. By 11 a.m. major city dwellers in Shanghai and Beijing report that they can’t log into their Facebook pages and therefore are left in the dark about the riots. This happened in 2009 and it’s safe to say that the majority of the population has no idea why Facebook has been shut down or that there has been a riot, so the average person just accepts the ban and goes on with life. Some hackers attempt to access the site through backdoor channels, but most realize that it’s too risky to try to hack their way in to the social site. The spread of information that fuels our day is stopped, or at the very least, delayed.

Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China is still strong and there are no specific laws or regulations that limit how much the government can do. There are around 60 Internet regulators that can enforce any type of censorship at will.

The people of India and Saudi Arabia faced a similar fate when the government banned the sending of Blackberry text messages, e-mail, and BBMs (an internal messaging service used among Blackberry users) because the government couldn’t monitor the encrypted services. These governments argued that it would make it harder to monitor terrorist activity if people were sending text messages and e-mails that they couldn’t read. What Americans and Europeans take for granted as the most basic forms of communication was suddenly revoked by these governments.

Sardar Mohkim Khan (@smohkim), a Pakistani tech blogger for the site StartUpMeme and an avid Facebook user, experienced a ban first hand when his personal and professional Facebook page access was shut down by the government in response to the “Everybody Draw Mohammad” Facebook fan page. The page went up in response to a threat made against the South Park creator Trey Parker for depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammad in a bear costume on the popular cartoon South Park. Khan, who’s main blog promotion was based via Facebook stated in an interview for us:

To me technology is an absolute essential, without any exaggeration, I live on it every day. Be it mobile phones, laptop or a simple Web application, I utilize each of these for fun, work and hobby and the social networks are my prime source of marketing online. Primarily Twitter and Facebook, which brings me to the recent ban on Facebook over the draw Mohammad [PBUH] day that had the government force a ban on access to the Facebook. My impression over the ban was mixed, given that the ban was placed primarily for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inability to block the page at first place despite many users complaining of the Page being hurtful to Muslim belief.

Although the Facebook ban personally affected his business, Khan believes that the ban was done in the country’s best interest:

Let me clarify one thing at first, the government in Pakistan doesn’t have an iron fist attitude towards the Internet as many Internet users openly express there views against the government on blogs, websites and none of those are blocked every now and then. The block on Facebook was done to safeguard the people’s interest, the vast majority who demanded it’s closure…Plus the country has been in turmoil ever since the War on Terror started, if the government hadn’t banned Facebook, it could have been exploited as a weakness by certain elements within the region and used to destabilize the country.

If you speak realistically in the face of the current political situation of the country, the decision was justified. Of course not without its consequences for people like me who have been using Facebook for business and connecting with people across the world. Plus it was the same means for myself and many others like me who were trying to put up some resistance against Draw Mohammad day using the social network. My blog, suffered big time due to this ban as I had to revise my strategy and stop writing on Facebook fearing that the future ban would prove devastating for myself, the blog and my readers alike. I personally know a couple of people who had their entire businesses based around Facebook and the ban proved more damaging to them.

Khan makes an interesting point. If people are offended, they should be allowed access to the networks so they can share their opinions, rather than being blocked from accessing them.

Image Credit: ABC News

But does banning a sharing tool like a cell phone or Twitter really stop the spreading of information or ideas? Yes and no. No, it won’t stop people in Beijing from hearing about a riot in a small province, but it will it delay the process. “Word of mouth” has been redefined and sped up through text messages, e-mails, and tweets. Banning these tools slows down the spread of information to standard “word of mouth,” which takes much longer to spread, especially internationally. Without these tools, people may never know what happened because nowadays, information is spawned from the source where it is spread upwards and outwards.

Within a social network, the people decide what’s important news, and what’s important to spread. Before social networks, news networks and business owners would decide what was newsworthy. Turn on a TV or open a newspaper and you’re going to see a hand picked report of what the editor thinks is important that week. A prime example of this is when riots broke out in Iran last year. Pictures, reports, and video came from the social networks and up, rather than from the major news networks and down. When these stories broke, the social network users were left wondering, why is this not on major network news? What the traditional news reporters deemed unworthy of news reports grew out of the social networks. Pictures, videos, and stories that the Iranian government did not want us to see suddenly started popping up over Twitter and Facebook. When the news started circulating the Internet, its viewers prompted major news to start covering the events. This makes you wonder: how much of the news goes unreported when news networks deem it unimportant? This to me, proves the importance of social networks. How much can a government keep under wraps with the help of major news networks.

And although the average person may think that Twitter and Facebook are simply a way to brag about what a person is doing or to provide a status update, social networks have been used for the social good as well. When the earthquake hit Chile earlier this year, Victims armed with nothing more than a cell phone and a Twitter client were able to raise awareness and location information. If a similar disaster had hit Pakistan or India during the BlackBerry ban, would their people have faced a worse fate? Perhaps.

When it comes to sharing news and information, the game has changed. In developed societies where technology is readily available, people should be able to use these tools. We should all be on the same playing field – a field where information is spread and shared as needed. Although Americans and Europeans have not faced similar tech bans that forced them to stop using a BlackBerry or Facebook, perhaps we share similar restraints. People often wonder: am I oversharing? Is my Facebook page making me look bad? Maybe I shouldn’t tweet my personal opinion on this matter – you never know who’s watching. But even if we as Americans aren’t allowed to be completely free when it comes to social networks and the Internet for fear that the wrong people are watching, had there been a riot or earthquake, you bet your ass we would all be sharing videos, pictures, and personal stories of exactly what’s going on. When it comes to technology, if it’s available, we should all be able to use it.

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