Image: Pakistani students chant slogans during a rally against Facebook page
K.M. Chaudary  /  AP
Pakistani students chant slogans during a rally against Facebook page amid anger over a page which encourages users to post images of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Wednesday, May 19, 2010.
Helen Popkin
updated 5/20/2010 9:34:47 AM ET 2010-05-20T13:34:47

Despite its 400 million-plus active users, Facebook seems like it could really use a friend.

Four senators are demanding the Federal Trade Commission do something over the social network site’s increasingly open privacy policy. A newly discovered bug reportedly opened the door to hackers, allowing them to alter profile pages and make private information public. And according to a recent study, one in five divorcees say Facebook helped end their marriage.

Yet these complaints pale in comparison with today’s epic Facebook fail. At least if you live in Pakistan. On Wednesday, Pakistan’s government ordered Internet services to block Facebook over “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” a user-posted page that encourages others to draw a picture of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, an act prohibited by the religion, and found offensive by more than just the government.

[ Update : Public protests against Facebook continued on Thursday, and access to YouTube and more than 450 Web sites, are now blocked for anti-Islamic content, according to a Pakistan government statement. Wikipedia and Flickr may be included among the sites, though it is not yet clear if inaccessibility is due to a glitch or deliberate ban.]

Turns out in Pakistan, if Facebook does something people don't like, they actually stop using it. According to the Associated Press, about 2,000 female students rallied in Karachi against the social network, and several dozen male students gathered with signs “urging Islamic holy war against those who blaspheme the prophet.” When it comes to “Terms and Conditions,” navigating “hate speech” is a bigger challenge what to do about your previously “private” profile information .

So what’s the largest social network in the history of the universe to do?  Facebook is still thinking about it. According to company representative Andrew Noyes, the “Draw Mohammed” page does not violate the site’s terms, but the company understands it may not be legal in some countries. “In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries,” Noyes stated via e-mail.

Indeed, the precedent is set. Holocaust denial, for example, is illegal in Austria, France and Germany. Therefore, Holocaust denial Facebook pages aren’t viewable in those countries. But if you're in the United States, you can check out Facebook pages such as “Holohaux” at your leisure, despite the social network's terms barring “hateful” and “threatening” content. (P.S. The Holocaust happened. You know that, right?)

You can’t, however, look at images of ladies breastfeeding babies or groups supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Because Facebook takes those down.

Does your head hurt yet? Are you energized with outrage? That’s understandable. Still, when it comes to hate speech, consider giving Facebook a break, suggests Ryan Calo, legal fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. (He knows about these things.)

“Companies like Facebook have a tough time navigating hate speech,” Calo said in a telephone interview. “Not only do they have to pick winners in content, they have to do it on a global scale. If they take down content because it offends one group of people, they end up offending another group.”

You can’t accuse Facebook of censorship! No really, you can’t. Censorship is solely the province of the government, which is optimally prevented from such actions by the First Amendment — the same amendment that allows Facebook to govern what you put on its site.

Just like IRL (in real life), you can’t threaten the life of the president, as one young rube implied with an “assassination” vote soon after Barack Obama was elected. And the social network does look to the First Amendment as a guide post when it comes to content, Calo pointed out. For example, “obscene” material, as interpreted from the First Amendment, is considered “obscene” on Facebook, too.

To its credit, Calo added, Facebook tends to err on the side of allowing potentially objectionable content, even as it has the ability to block such content in countries where it’s against the law. And he advocates sympathy for the social network as it operates in a global environment, noting that values, mores and laws vary greatly between countries.

“Today in France, they’re considering banning head scarves (for Muslim women),” Calo cites as an example for comparison. “Pakistan wants to block Facebook for one page that nobody needs to go to. It’s not like Facebook forces anyone to go look at it.”

Its dealings with objectionable content, it seems, is one area where the world could cut Facebook some slack … especially compared to the social network's other issues. “The fire Facebook is drawing over privacy is much more real than the fire over hate speech,” Calo said. “Hate speech is really hard to get right. Privacy, they’re clearly trying to move users from private to public, and that’s a problem.”

At least the people of Pakistan don’t have to worry about Facebook violating their privacy. For now, anyway.

Helen A.S. Popkin rants about online privacy, then begs you to friend her on Facebook, join her Fan page or follow her on Twitter, because that's how she rolls.

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Video: Muslims protest 'Draw Muhammad' day

  1. Closed captioning of: Muslims protest 'Draw Muhammad' day

    >>> religious tolerance. protests take place in pakistan today over a facebook page that encourages users to post images of the prophet mohammed . it's been blocked by the government there. the online idea was inspiredpy a recent "southpark" episode that featured the prophet dressed in a bare costume. they sensored parts of episode over a threat to the show's creators. joining me via skype is the man encouraging people to post image images on facebook and he wants us to refer to him as andy out of fear of being traced by angry muslims. good morning.

    >> good morning to you.

    >> we got to explain to people, you're on skype and i can't show your picture. you're on skype because you can't be traced if you would have been traced if you phoned into the broadcast. i'm sure you know what you're doing here, but can you tell us what the point of all this is?

    >> well, the point starts with the southpark episode. we didn't really know this would expand so extremely, but now that we've experienced that more people share the same sentiments as we have and we've seen the reactions to the muslim world , we know that the fight for freedom of expression and freedom of speech can't be stopped by a country like pakistan by censoring the internet like they do in north korea and china and when companies accept it. facebook has not accepted to sensor this like google accepted and china some weeks ago. and it's really important to say that in the fight for freedom of expression , even if they do sensor censor it, it does not stop. we have to think of the totalian regimes. they all have their time, and at one time or another, they will all start to smauld molder from the inside. that will happen in pakistan well.

    >> i'm curious you didn't think this would grow to the point where it has today. we've got the pakistan telecommunications authority blocking facebook from that country for an indefinite period of time. really? you've heard of the danish cartoonist who drew that picture in 2005 wear a bomb -- had mohammed -- had his turban there. he had the death threats . what about theo van gogh . he was grewsomali murdered in 2004 . did these things cross your mind before you went on this campaign?

    >> yeah, exactly, because they were the reasons the censorship started, i believe. the tracks were aimed at comedy central . i've been talking to him, and he supports this. the problem is with a lot of people after this incident and it's that people start censoring themselves. it's very known that through provocation you see a lot of creative minds at work, and you have to mention as well not so many days ago there was another attack in sweden against a man, who is a professor at the universi university. he was attacked during a lecture by angry muslim. you can mofind the movie on youtube. his house was put on fire, and there was left a knife on his doorstep. we can't accept it. even as provoke indicating as we are, we can't accept threats.

    >> freedom of speech and anti-censorship movements abounding. do stay safe, andy.

    >> thanks a lot.

    >> all right. right now we


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