EFF angry as Twitter bows to censorship in Pakistan

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

May 27, 2014

Twitter has bowed down to pressure from the Pakistan government, and agreed to block posts deemed of a ‘blasphemous’ nature at least five times over the last month.

These Tweets, which are said to include crude drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, photographs of burning Qurans, messages from a handful of anti-Islam bloggers, and an image of American porn star Belle Knox (who now attends Duke University), were objected to by Abdul Batin, a bureaucrat who works for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.

Twitter, which has no staff or assets based in Pakistan, defended its actions on the grounds that doing so was in line with its country-specific censorship policy launched in January 2012. The idea behind the policy was that posts would be taken down in one country at that county’s request, but not removed from Twitter elsewhere.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) defended this policy at the time, arguing that because Twitter would log every blocked post with the Chilling Effects clearing house, and because censorship evasion tools (such as VPN) meant that censored Tweets could be fairly readily accessed, this was as ‘the least terrible option’.

Last week however, the EFF took a more aggressive stance on the issue,

Supporters of Twitter’s position might also argue that the country-by-country censorship is easy to circumvent; all you need to do is change your account’s location settings. This is true and it’s one of the nice things about the Internet. But the argument misses the point: Censorship is censorship, even if it is weak or easy to get around. No one will ever defend Twitter as the “weak censorship wing of the Free Speech Party.” And that includes EFF.

This follows growing frustration at Twitter’s acquiescence to Russian demands to remove content relating to the situation in the Ukraine, and expert opinion that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has no legal right to make such demands,

The PTA, in accordance with Section 5 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Re-Organization Act 1996 (amended 2005) is a body established to regulate licenses and workings of telecommunication services and systems. The Act does not in any form give PTA the authority to arbitrarily restrict content on the Internet. Section 8 of the Act allows the Federal Government to authorize the PTA to take or implement certain policy decisions; however, 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.

As we discuss in our look at VPNs for Pakistan, internet censorship and on-line surveillance in Pakistan has become dramatically worse over the just the last few years, and since 2012 the government has aimed to build a nationwide URL filtering system designed to block around 50 million websites, which will operate in a similar manner to The Great Firewall of China.

In March this year Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi survived an assassination attempt that killed his driver, after he and other liberals were targeted for criticizing Islamist militancy and a blasphemy law.

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