Pakistan's strict online censorship policy has drawn criticism from human rights groups. But while sites like YouTube are banned, Islamist sites proliferate, policed by committed groups of pro-censorship conservatives.
At an Internet café in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, students try to get uninterrupted access to the Internet. But for many Pakistanis, it’s a futile exercise.
"This site is blocked, we don't have access to it," explained a student, staring at a page with a message that read: “This website is not accessible. The site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership within Pakistan.”
Pakistani authorities have blocked access to between 20,000 to 40,000 websites, according to a recent report by an independent Pakistani media rights organisation. The actual figure, the report noted, may be far higher.
Banned sites include YouTube, which was blocked two years ago, after the release of an anti-Islam film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked demonstrations across the country.
But it’s easy to access websites that promote Islamist and jihadist activities.
At the Internet café in Lahore, a student logged onto one of innumerable jihadist websites available on the web. "Such websites that spread hate should be blocked,” he exclaimed. “But I click on it, and it opens easily."
Armies of online Islamists
Most Islamist movements in Pakistan now have an Internet department handling online content.
At a slick office in the basement of a city mosque, a group of men work on computers with high-speed Internet access overseen by a bank of flickering TV screens. This is the Internet cell of the Jamat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s largest religious parties.
One of the staffers explains that he has just uploaded a Jamaat-e-Islami statement calling for a struggle to establish an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan.
In this country of over 190 million people, around 100 million are under 25. It’s a demographic the Islamist groups are trying to reach.
"In our party, we have a slogan: The youth will lead us on the path of the revolution,” explained Shamsuddin Amjad, head of Jamaat-e-Islami’s social media department. “The Internet is a way for us to address them."
Pakistanis who support government censorship
Faced with the widespread Islamisation of the Internet, Pakistani activist groups such as Bytes for All are campaigning against state censorship policies, especially the banning of social media sites such as Facebook, which was temporarily banned when caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were found on the site.
"Facebook is a very significant channel in Pakistan, so they have a kind of agreement that whatever authorities ask them to block, they will block it. So, you see a lot of human rights pages are blocked in Pakistan – they are not blasphemous, they have nothing to do with nudity,” said Shahzad Ahmad, director of Bytes for All.
But in a deeply conservative country, the authorities do not necessarily have to censor online content – it can simply rely on a committed band of individuals opposed to Internet freedom to do the job.
A recent study by the US-based Pew Research Center found Pakistanis were least supportive of access to the Internet without government censorship among 24 emerging and developing nations.
The study found that while 89% in Venezuela and 86% in Lebanon believed governments should not censor the Internet, in Pakistan the figure was only 22%.
A Muslim Facebook that polices the web
At a residential neighbourhood in Lahore, a group of lawyers, engineers and business run MillatFacebook (MyMFB), an alternative to Facebook aimed at Muslims.
The founders and key figures at MillatFacebook include prominent Pakistanis who have petitioned the courts calling for a Facebook ban.
MillatFacebook guarantees the immediate removal of any online content that is blasphemous and boasts of more than half-a-million members.
"MillatFacebook is a social network by Muslims, but it is a social network for everyone,” said Omer Zaheer Meer, founder and CEO of MillatFacebook. “It’s a matter of responsibility – just like you are going on the road… you can’t start hitting someone [saying] ‘oh I have unlimited freedom’. Yes, you have your freedom but as long as you are not going to go into someone’s personal space."
Given the rise of individuals and groups committed to censorship and policing the web, the political atmosphere – or what Pakistanis call “fazza” – is not inclined to favour online freedom.
With friends like these, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and the Ministry of Information Technology can easily take on any online entity or message deemed the enemy.
Programme prepared by Patrick Lovett and Elise Duffau.