Facebook May Assist Pakistan’s Censorship

So far it only appears to have been reported in the Pakistani news, but according to the Pakistani Interior Ministry, Facebook will be sending a delegation to investigate allegedly blasphemous and objectionable content on the website. The move from the social media giant apparently comes after the government threatened to ban Facebook in the country, something it last did in 2010 when I wrote about it. This is Dawn’s report on the latest:

The government had approached Facebook earlier this week regarding access to the records of three controversial pages accused of spreading blasphemous content, the director general of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Mazhar Kakakhail had said.

The issue comes at a moment when the Islamabad High Court (IHC) is hearing a petition filed by Salman Shahid. Interestingly, Dawn explains the case this way:

The case, filed by Salman Shahid, argues that the presence of blasphemous content on social media websites is “hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims”.

The petition also alleged that pages and videos defaming the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) and revered personalities had not been blocked by the respondents nor had any steps been taken to remove the content.

Three of the ‘blasphemous’ pages had already been blocked, whereas five to six other pages carrying blasphemous content had been marked, the FIA DG had told the court in a hearing on Monday.

The Independent, however, notes the following about the petition:

Salman Shahid filed the case, alleging that five bloggers, Salman Haider, Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Samar Abbas, were spreading blasphemous content through pages on social networks.

So, at issue, are not just any Facebook pages in general (although there is that too), but particularly the pages of 5 bloggers who were disappeared. Samar Abbas continues to be missing. In other words, Facebook is now potentially involved in the issue of disappearances in Pakistan.

The judge adjudicating the case, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, seems to be a zealot:

Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui also wants people found to have posted blasphemous content online to have their names added to the Exit Control List, thereby prohibiting them from leaving the country.

“I will go to every extent to bring this case to its logical end and if needed I will even ban social media in Pakistan,” he is reported to have said.

Justice Siddiqui claimed that he had been unable to sleep since seeing the offending content, and also compared blasphemers to terrorists.

The blasphemous pages are being removed with the help of Facebook officials.

The government has also asked Twitter as well as Interpol to assist it in curbing what it views as objectionable ‘blasphemous’ material.

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Military involved with census

The military is involved in the census process that is currently underway. Strangely, in addition to providing security to census-takers, it is handing out its own, second census form and sending out 44,000 troops to do a parallel count. The UN is concerned:

But that has created some disquiet for the UN, who are concerned about the army’s role as parallel data collectors.

Additionally, the current census will count IDPs as residents of the host province if they have been there for more than 6 months, which is likely to yield severe undercounts for FATA, particularly Waziristan and Mohmand, and that will have unfortunate consequences when it comes to allocating budgets and resources based on the new census. A case has been filed by rights activist, Samreen Wazir:

NADRA has blocked certain CNICs ahead of the census:

The National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) has blocked 350,000 computerised national identity cards (CNICs) ahead of the first phase of the census.

Bajwa claimed that most of the blocked CNICs belonged to Afghan nationals. However, he added, the census would cover all people living in the country irrespective of their ethnicity or nationality. Foreign nationals would also be registered.

However, in the census reports only those Afghans will be counted who have valid Pakistani CNICs and the rest will be left out. The PBS will use Nadra database to check fake CNICs.

Ethnic Baloch are also worried about the census as it is likely to put them in the minority. They’ve filed petitions with superior courts. Full story here.

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US retires Predator drone

After 15 years of use, the US is retiring the Predator drone:

The General Atomics remote-piloted plane entered service in 1995 as the reconnaissance drone RQ-1. But in 1999 it was fitted with Hellfire missiles and re-designated MQ-1, an ad-hoc adaptation that would give it a reputation as a silent assassin.

The first Predator strike is believed to have taken place in Afghanistan in 2002, but it was not until 2004 that the US launched its first drone strike in Pakistan, an attack that killed Taliban leader Nek Muhammad.

Full story here.


From FCR to Racial Profiling

People from FATA who live in Rawalpindi have been put under surveillance.

He said the whereabouts of all such individuals were being gathered in Rawalpindi and three other districts. Of the total individuals from the tribal areas, 4,300 were living/doing business in the Rawalpindidistrict, 610 in Attock, 245 in Jhelum and 280 in Chakwal.

Police considering issuing them chip-based national identity cards equipped with added security features

“The objective of compiling the data of all such individuals is to keep vigilance on them,” the senior police official said. “Police are also considering containing them to a specific place and issuing them chip-based identity cards.”

KP’s Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak has warned against the profiling. Meanwhile, on the same day that there was a drone attack in Kurram Agency, the federal cabinet agreed to the recommendations of the FATA reforms committee report, marking a major turning point. The proposed plan, as of now, is to implement a 5-year transitional plan during which time the FCR will be replaced by the Rewaj Act, previously called Nizam-e-Adl. Nobody seems to have a final draft version of this act, although there have already been protests about it because people  suspect that the act is another version of custom as cruel governance.

Two days after the approval of the reforms, a number of maliks filed a case with the supreme court of KP, challenging the legality of the reforms.

I suspect these trends will go hand-in-hand: the juridical reforms of FATA will be coupled with a regime of high and low tech surveillance and racial profiling. Even as, in the best case scenario, the juridical otherness of FATA melts, a new regime (closer to that of ruling difference in the US i.e. racial profiling) will stick to the skin.

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Paper: The Politics of Visibility in Contemporary Photography

An excellent meditation on publicity, photography, visibility and the frame published in Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal of Visual Culture: 

Like Taryn Simon, American artist Trevor Paglen takes up the ideology of transparency in photographic projects that address the politics of inaccessible spaces and interrogate the unseen networks that structure life under the state. He too activates questions around visibility, participation, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in works that expose the representational limits of photography. While their subject matter and strategy differ in significant ways, Paglen’s work is likewise emblematic of a type of photography that shifts between image and information, between a seductive formalism and the carefully controlled revelation of evidence, strategically deploying visual and textual details in tandem so that the viewer becomes aware of what exists outside the confines of the frame. For each artist, their projects inhere meaning only when the viewer is able to identify the limits and restrictions imposed, limits that are often the result of a long, careful process of research. In both cases, this is an artistic strategy that moves away from the kind of aesthetic or visual research artists might typically employ and instead re-frames aesthetics in the context of their respective backgrounds in journalism (Simon) and geography (Paglen.)8

In one of his earliest photographic projects, The Other Night Sky, Paglen presents images of classified American satellites, objects that are not officially or publicly logged but that orbit the earth to covertly track or collect data. Working with amateur groups who observe and record the movements of satellites in order to calculate and predict their paths in the sky, Paglen produces visually seductive, telescopic images of the sky at night. Often shot in remote locations, Paglen’s skies are filled with stars and light, producing the familiar sense of wonderment that comes with the contemplation of the universe. Yet of course what he is showing his viewer is much more sinister, revealing as it does the satellite systems that are not part of a transparent public record. This aestheticization of surveillance processes serves to highlight a paradox of visuality itself, since the mere presence of lights in the sky discloses very little factual information even as they signify the covert processes of state surveillance.

A similar and more recent series, Untitled (Drones), shifts his focus to observing and recording the paths of American military drones, an investigation that dovetails with the increased use of drones under the Obama administration.9 Drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” operate simultaneously as automatic recording devices and weapons, looking back at us with their eyeless vision to animate a geographically indeterminate space between viewer and viewed. Such indeterminacy is matched by Paglen’s visual strategy, where his large, saturated prints utilize flat, abstract fields of colour. The viewer is thrust into a vividly atmospheric space, and with no horizon line to orient us towards either earth or sky our normal sense of spatial orientation is confused. Clouds spread wide across the picture plane, serving to reflect, colour, abstract and obscure, attracting our gaze to search for what is held within them. Often only after close scrutiny does the tiny point of the drone reveal itself, reminding us that the sky is not neutral.

Heaving with “the electromagnetic waves of encrypted information that pulse through the atmosphere,” the sky bears the digital information required to keep UAVs airborne.10 Paglen’s use of striking and sublime images paradoxically articulates that the sky no longer acts as a projection of our desires for limitless freedom and the fantastical unknown; it is a space that is as mapped, linked, and virtually connected as anywhere on earth.

Paglen’s work pivots on the tension between aesthetic representation and the documentation of specific instances of state surveillance. He probes at the limits of photography and what a photographic document is able to do: is an image of a drone or a geo-stationary satellite, even with all of the supplemental text that the artist includes, capable of telling us anything about the American military complex and its secretive, violent actions? This disjunction between what Paglen would call the relational aspects of his projects, what exists external to the image, and the highly aestheticized, historically referential qualities of the image itself, is a problem set with an established history in aerial photography.


Both Butler and Azoulay provide accounts of the representational limits of photography and the political limits of public visibility. They each draw our attention to the terms that restrict visual representation and to what is at stake politically if we are not able to recognize the externalities of photography–its framing devices, its temporalities, its participants–as such. Developing a theoretical model that looks outside the image in order to construct meaning has significance not only for photographic practices but for the way we understand and consume visual information in an era that assumes data is, or should be, transparent. The “ideology of communicational transparency” is one that both Paglen and Simon take on, through recourse to the genealogies and aesthetics of photographic media.” 35 This problem has equal bearing on theories of vision, on ideas that determine how we see what we see, and on the dialectic between revelation and concealment: why do we assume that transparency is aspirational?

Political scientist Jodi Dean, writing in the early 2000s, has developed strong arguments for the critique of a transparent public sphere. For Dean, the clichéd assumption that the public has a right to know, that knowledge will come through transparent processes, and that such knowledge is a fundamental obligation of a democratic society, is a problematic assertion that veils the ideological function of the very idea of a public sphere. She points out that contemporary technoculture relies on the notion that the solution to any problem is publicity, or really, transparency, and that more information and greater access to that information is the answer 36 Her work investigates the secret–that which is purposefully kept hidden and inaccessible–as the limit of such publicity:


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ARTICLE: Digital Ontologies as Productive Process

From Cultural Anthropology, this thought-provoking piece by Olga Gorinova:

In a representationalist paradigm, such theory or data would be understood as a representation of how the world really is (a paradigm that seems to have been overcome in performative STS). Yet this paradigm is still employed by scholars when they consider data gathered around a person’s activity in virtual and real life alike as a “data double” (Raley 2013). The concept of a data double or data shadow, arguably, implies a representationalist explanation of what and how the person really is.

Like scientific truths produced in a laboratory, such a double is not only made; it also makes. It is performative and enactive.

Full text here.

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Talk | Decolonization of the Caliphate

The Decolonisation of the Caliphate SOAS 18-03-2016_001

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News 03.18.2016

2. Drivers in Bajaur decry ‘highhandedness’ of political administration

KHAR, 17 March: Drivers in Bajaur Agency have complained that the political administration officials unnecessarily tease them and confiscate their vehicles.

The local drivers alleged that despite having proper driving licences and other documents, the administration officials bother them and confiscate their vehicles to mint money. A driver told TNN that his driving licence was stuck in Timergara due to an issue.

“Despite having all other documents, they manhandled me and impounded by vehicle. They are doing it for money. We demand the administration to stop this practice of teasing peaceful citizens,” he said.

Another driver said there is no licence office in Bajaur. “Licence law does not apply on our area as we are governed under the Frontier Crimes Regulation,” he told TNN.

On the other hand, Assistant Political Agent Khar said the crackdown against underage drivers and those not possessing mandatory documents has been initiated over public complaints. He said a number of drivers have been arrested and their vehicles confiscated for violating rules. He said the crackdown will continue.

3. Mobile service restored in Bajaur

KHAR, 17 March: Mobile telephone service has been restored in Bajuar after remaining suspended for two days, local residents informed.

The signals have been restored on Wednesday evening as people from different parts of the agency confirmed the connectivity has been gradually reestablished. However, there are still complaints of poor signals in some areas.

According to sources in the political administration services of all the telecom companies were cut off as they had not obtained the no objection certificate (NOC) from the relevant quarters which is required for operation.

The sources maintained that services on more than 10 towers of the concerned telecom companies have been restored as they obtained the relevant documents.

This after cell phone service was suspended.

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Audio: What We Can Learn About Drone Strikes From 10 Million Yemeni Cell Phones

Over at Five Thirty-Eight, Jody Avirgan interviews Fotini Christia, an MIT political scientist who was given 10 million cell-phone records by a mobile phone company to do big data research. Christia explains that the motive for the phone company for handing over the records had to do with wanting to further development research in Yemen.

The audio and interview are worth a listen. Also this:

Jody Avirgan: I wonder if you can start by describing the challenge that you were trying to solve by using this data?

Fotini Christia: Yemen is a fascinating place because it is a hotspot and a place of trouble. It has been an issue for the U.S. in terms of terrorism, instability, continued conflict. And though we do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence [about the country], it tends to be very selective. It’s usually from journalists that can be on the ground in very particular places. So there’s a lot we don’t get to hear about Yemen because it’s so hard to do social scientific or analytic work on the ground. It’s not a place that has rich census data. It’s not a place that has rich household-level data, recent survey or polling data. So people tried to be creative about where else you can get information.

That line about journalists speaks to questions of epistemology and, as someone who is anthropologically trained, its assumption that ‘evidence’ derives from mass data rather than familiarity with ‘particular places’ struck me.

In the interview, Christia describes drone attacks as an “exogenous event,” like an earthquake (her example), but this is a strange characterization for a number of reasons. For one, an exogenous event is one that has no particular relationship to the sociality of a place, but the US itself argues that they bomb particular people because they are doing militant-y things on the ground. Second, at least for FATA (and I would suspect Yemen), people are in fact making judgments about what might make them targetable (i.e. don’t talk to so-and-so; don’t make phone calls here or there or say this or that word; don’t go to this place at this hour) and are trying to avoid it. Moreover, opposition groups have repeatedly killed people they suspect to be informants in the aftermath of a drone attack. Others speculate that drone bombing is sometimes caught up in local rivalries where a person may (mis)inform or allege that his rival is a terrorist. In short, drones are not exogenous except in the theoretical frame that flattens place into blank space.

And finally, I haven’t read the paper, but in the interview at least, the deployment of the category of religion (i.e. Christia says they can see from the phone records how much religion structures life) is simplistic.

And finally, this kind of big data research opens for me all kinds of ethical questions about the researcher’s relationship to her subjects who have no idea that their metadata and information, down to the individual level it sounds like from the interview, has been handed over.

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