Twitter censors "blasphemous" content in Pakistan, and proves my point much quicker than I expected

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In a disappointing move, Twitter has cravenly given in to the censors in Pakistan – agreeing to block certain tweets and Twitter accounts in the country that have been deemed “blasphemous” and “unethical” by the country’s telecommunications authority.

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Coincidentally, yesterday I wrote a piece arguing that when corporations choose to delete or ban pieces of content on social media, because of the nature of 21st century society it transcends a mere community policy violation and becomes a free speech issue.

I didn’t expect my point to be proven quite so fast.

In the piece, I argued that because a handful of corporations (the likes of Google/Skype, Apple, Facebook and Twitter) and their platforms are so integral to our lives that not being able to post on these platforms could perhaps be considered a free speech issue. The example I was writing about was the tricky case of California gunman Elliot Rodger’s YouTube videos – I asked whether we’d be so quick to accept the decision to block the content had it instead been contentious opinions about politics or religion. It is odd, I suggested, that we’re happy to delegate these sorts of decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable to corporations.

And this is exactly what has happened in the case of Pakistan and Twitter.

It is no surprise that the Pakistani government has acted – though the constitution claims to guarantee freedom of speech, ‘blasphemy‘ against Islam is banned in the constitution. This means that living in Pakistan is going to be very difficult if you identify with another religion – or if you’re an atheist. Heck – you can’t even be a different sort of Muslim than the official sect – Ahmadi Muslims have been declared “non-Muslim” by the same constitution.

In both of these cases, the decision to censor has been made by the corporations on whose platforms the alleged violations took place – and what’s frustrating is that isn’t so clear cut. Whilst you might think I’m an idiot for suggesting that taking down a murderer’s videos are a free speech issue, I’m more certain that you’d agree that a blasphemy law being enforced in the 21st century is insane.

But in both of these cases, it is the corporations (Google and Twitter respectively) who have made a judgement call, rather than people themselves. Twitter isn’t obliged to respect the blasphemy law – it merely elected to censor users in pursuit of profit.

Bob Churchill, Communications Officer for IHEU, which monitors cases like this agrees, saying that, “The idea that it is better to have censored access to social media and search, rather than none at all, is debatable. The blasphemy law in Pakistan is widely used to harass minorities, and to suppress free speech which, for example, legitimately criticises certain religious authorities or practices. Any company which gains business in a state by cooperating with laws like this is complicit.”

Without doubt, this blasphemy case is a freedom of speech issue – and once again it highlights that the corporation is the arbiter who gets to decide.

C’mon Twitter, you can do better than this.

James O’Malley