At least five times this month, a Pakistani bureaucrat who works from a colonial-era barracks in Karachi, just down the street from the former home of his country’s secularist founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, asked Twitter to shield his compatriots from exposure to accounts, tweets or searches of the social network that he described as “blasphemous” or “unethical.”
All five of those requests were honored by the company, meaning that Twitter users in Pakistan can no longer see the content that so disturbed the bureaucrat, Abdul Batin of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority: crude drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, photographs of burning Qurans, and messages from a handful of anti-Islam bloggers and a U.S. porn star who now attends Duke University.
The blocking of these tweets in Pakistan — in line with the country-specific censorship policy Twitter unveiled in 2012 — is the first time the social network has agreed to withhold content there. A number of the accounts seemed to have been blocked in anticipation of the fourth annual “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20.
This censorship comes as challenges to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law have become increasingly deadly, amid a flurry of arrests, killings and assassination attempts on secularists.
This week, a local edition of the International New York Times was printed in Pakistan with a large blank space instead of an op-ed article headlined “Pakistan’s Tyranny of Blasphemy.”
Twitter, which has trumpeted its commitment to free speech, argues that it is a lesser evil to block specific tweets that might violate local laws than to have the entire site blocked in certain countries. Twitter posts a record of every request it agrees to in the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a database maintained by eight U.S. law schools and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In previous cases, Twitter has agreed to withhold the tweets of an outlawed neo-Nazi group from users in Germany, and this week it blocked the account of an ultranationalist Ukrainian group from users in Russia.
Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote today that Twitter’s decision to block the Ukrainian group Pravy Sektor’s tweets from Russians was “disappointing” for two reasons.
“First, Twitter has no employees or assets in Russia, so it should not have to comply with a Russian court order at all,” Galperin argued. “And the order isn’t even about a Russian account — it’s a Ukrainian one. Worse yet, Pravy Sektor’s account is plainly political. If Twitter won’t stand up for political speech in a country where independent media is increasingly under attack, what will it stand for?”
Galperin also pointed out that a civil rights group in Pakistan concerned with Internet access, Bolo Bhi, questioned “the legitimacy of the requests forwarded by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority” to Twitter. The law that defines the regulator’s power, the group explained, “does not in any form give PTA the authority to arbitrarily restrict content on the Internet.”
Close scrutiny of the law, the Pakistani rights group argued, suggests that “content removal, whether by itself or through another, is beyond the ambit of powers of the PTA or of any government authority for that matter.”