Last week, a spokesman for the Pakistani Ministry of Information Technology announced that Pakistan was blocking access to Twitter because the site had not removed links to a competition on Facebook to post cartoon images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Why Twitter and not Facebook? The spokesman went on to say that Facebook had agreed to address the Pakistani government’s concerns—Facebook later issued a statement saying they had blocked the content about the contest in Pakistan—but they viewed Twitter as recalcitrant.
“The government is in contact with Twitter and had asked them to remove the material. When they didn't, it was decided that the site would be blocked.”
For their part, Twitter released an official statement reiterating their policy of taking down content in response to valid court orders, which they said they have not received from the Pakistani government. Neither Twitter nor Facebook appears to have offices, data centers, or personnel inside of Pakistan, giving rise to questions of whether the Pakistani courts have jurisdiction over either company. Both Facebook and Twitter have the capability to block content on a country-by-country basis. It is disappointing to see Facebook use this capability to censor content in Pakistan while Twitter has held its ground.
Pakistan’s decision to block Twitter put it in bad company. While the government has spent the last couple of years experimenting with all kinds of Internet censorship, blocking Twitter is an uncommon move. The only other country that consistently blocks access to Twitter at this time is the People’s Republic of China. Burma has blocked access to Twitter intermittently, usually timed to coincide with events the government thinks are likely to trigger political protest, such as elections.
Pakistan’s block on Twitter inspired immediate outrage. A few hours after the block was implemented, Interior Minister Rehman Malik (apparently deaf to the irony that no one in Pakistan could read his message of concern) tweeted:
Dear All yes I spoke to PM and informed how people are feeling about it. PM ordered to reopen the twitter.
Access to Twitter was only blocked for eight hours, but the effect on freedom of expression in Pakistan could be more long-lasting. Huma Yusuf, columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn fears that this is merely a precursor to Internet censorship surrounding the upcoming general election and expresses concern that the next ban may not be as short-lived. But if this ban was meant to test the will of Pakistani Twitter users, who protested immediately, or Twitter itself, which did not remove the references to the cartoon-drawing contest, the ban was a failure. If the Pakistani government has learned anything from this experience it's that even if they cannot make Twitter blink, Facebook does cooperate with their requests to block certain kinds of content within Pakistan. We may not see more Twitter blocking when the general election comes, but other forms of blocking, filtering, and censorship of online content seem likely to continue to pose a danger to freedom of expression in Pakistan over the coming year.