Twitter Censors "Blasphemous" Tweets to Oblige a Pakistani Bureaucrat

Twitter is still receiving accolades for its role in the Arab Spring years later, but the corporation's decision block tweets in Pakistan for the first time ever is tarnishing its reputation as a free speech advocate.

At least five times in May, Twitter has acquiesced to requests from a Pakistani official to censor tweets he deemed "blasphemous" and "unethical." The New York Times reports:

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 an American porn star who now attends Duke University.

The decision to block those tweets adheres to Twitter's country-specific censorship policy released in 2012. But the decision to give in to government censorship comes during a particularly volatile time for political opposition in Pakistan, notes the Times:

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.

Twitter defends its action by arguing that block tweets that break local laws is a greater good (or "lesser evil," as the Times puts it) than getting the service block in Pakistan for everyone.

Google famously came to a different conclusion in China in 2010, shutting down the service because of censorship (and hacking threats) and redirecting users to Hong Kong.

Although this is Twitter's first time kowtowing to authorities in Pakistan, the country censored other tweets before, including a neo-Nazi group in Germany. Just this week, the company blocked Russian users from an account run by an ultranationalist group of Ukrainians. In that case, Twitter was complying with a court order. Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the decision "disappointing," notes the Times:

"First, Twitter has no employees or assets in Russia, so it should not have to comply with a Russian court order at all," Ms. 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?"

Twitter, the fastest-growing social platform around the world in 2013, faced a decline in the growth of monthly active users around the globe earlier in this year, but re-accelerated this past quarter.

To contact the author of this post, please email nitasha@gawker.com.

[Image via @TarekFatah]