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Twitter's blocking of 'blasphemous' content raises questions over its censorship policy

Sharif Sakr
05.23.14
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At first glance, Twitter's international policy on censorship seems reasonable. If the laws of a particular country require content to be locally blocked, then Twitter will adhere to that, deeming it to be a lesser evil than having the social network blocked in its entirety. This is what's just happened in Pakistan, where five requests from a government office have, for the first time, resulted in "blasphemous" and "unethical" tweets being blocked to Pakistani users -- including crude drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. This successfully avoided a repetition of what happened two years ago, when similar content temporarily led Pakistan to deploy a site-wan ban against twitter.com. However, critics say that, in practice, Twitter's policy isn't working fairly, because it's giving too much power to would-be censors who, even within their own countries, don't actually have any authority to block or delete content.

In the case of Pakistan, the agency sending block requests to Twitter is a telecoms regulator, whose legal power to get involved in censorship has been refuted by civil rights groups. Similar objections have been raised in Russia and Ukraine, where Russia has requested blocks against Ukrainian and opposition Twitter accounts that appear to have been targeted purely for political, rather than legal, reasons. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has generally supported Twitter's censorship policy since 2012, now accuses the social network of "caving" on the issue of free speech.

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