Pakistan already goes further than most in digitally shielding its citizens from the outside world. There are only two countries where Facebook blocks more content at the request of their governments, and a YouTube ban imposed two years ago shows no sign of being lifted.
That is not enough for some. In a country becoming ever more sensitive to perceived insults to Islam it is not just clerics and hard-right religious parties who want more control over the internet, but also a group of tech-savvy activists who have built their own alternative Facebook. “We are the largest Muslim social network in history,” said Omer Zaheer Meer.
The young accountant co-founded Millat Facebook, now known as myMFB, after failing to persuade a court to ban the real thing in 2010 during a controversy about a campaign to encourage people to post pictures of the prophet Muhammad.
Although myMFB looks similar to the original it has extra features, including a live camera feed from the Grand Mosque in Mecca. There is no chance of pornography, blasphemy or any material deemed by its founders to be hurtful to religious sensibilities remaining on the site, which claims to have half a million users worldwide.
“It is not just for Muslims, but for anyone who believes freedom of expression does not mean inciting hatred or provoking people,” said Meer.
Five years after the original controversy, Facebook is still available but Meer said he would not go near the website because of what he regarded as its double standards. “On Facebook they will remove it if is against Jews, but they will not remove it if it is against Muslims,” he claimed.
Internet freedom activists complain Pakistan has more than earned its nickname of “Banistan”, given the government’s penchant for shutting down bits of the web it doesn’t like.
Freedom House, a rights organization, ranks Pakistan among countries it considers to be “not free” in the online world.
The biggest casualty of the crackdown is YouTube, which was blocked in 2012 amid anger in the Islamic world over a crude polemic called Innocence of Muslims.
Proxy services that help people get round the block, which are popular in Pakistan, have been targeted by the government.
Even one of the lawyers who worked to get YouTube banned in the first place was spotted in court using a proxy service to access the site. “I know how to use it without seeing blasphemous material,” the lawyer, Azhar Siddique, said. “My concern is that my six-year-old child could go on YouTube and see it unintentionally.”
There is little appetite to lift bans once they have been put in place, given the day of rioting that shook Pakistan during the furore over Innocence of Muslims Pakistan.
“Pakistan’s ruling elite are not close-minded people but they are terrified,” said Yaseer Hamdani, a lawyer who has worked to try to scrap the YouTube ban. “They know appeasing the mullahs is a mistake, but they are scared of the backlash.”
The country has made dozens of requests for Twitter to remove tweets, including many cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that were only temporarily blocked by the social network.
Digital rights activists complain of a shadowy “inter-ministerial committee” that decides the fate of websites and social media accounts. “No one knows who they are, what their capacity is, or whether they understand what free speech is,” said Shazad Ahmad, director of the Pakistani digital rights group Bytes for All. “The blocks are always arbitrary and often against political content.”
Pakistani students hold a rally against the Facebook page Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! in Islamabad in 2010. Pakistani students hold a rally against the Facebook page Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! in Islamabad in 2010. Photograph: Anjum Naveed/Associated Press
Among the casualties was a pioneering site for gay Pakistanis called Queer Pakistan, which was shut a month after it launched. The country’s hopeless battle against pornography (according to Google, Pakistan is the world’s top porn-searching nation) has seen some users complain that scientific papers about breast anatomy have been blocked.
Meanwhile “political dissent and secessionist movements is among the nation’s most systematically censored content”, according to Freedom House, although there is rarely any public explanation when websites do disappear.
In 2013 the Internet Movie Database was blocked amid official anger at a trailer for The Line of Freedom, a short film dramatising the illegal abductions and killings of separatists allegedly carried out by the Pakistani security forces in the restless province of Balochistan.
The country’s record on blocking hate speech by Islamist militants who restrict their activities to India and Afghanistan, or even sectarian terror groups who target the country’s Shia minority, has been unimpressive.
“We know that several pages of banned organizations continue to flourish on Pakistani cyberspace but innocent, straightforward liberal discourse is being blocked,” said Shazad Ahmad.
They include a Facebook group called Roshni that criticised Islamic fundamentalists and called for secularism and human rights, which was blocked by Facebook after a torrent of abuse from online Islamists.
A satirical band called the Beygairat Brigade was censored for daring to mock Pakistan’s powerful army elite with a music video.
Fully aware of the risks, the music video concludes with the band holding a placard saying “No need to like this video, we’ll be dead anyway.” But few were able to hit the like button in any case – it was swiftly blocked in Pakistan on Vimeo, the video-sharing website.