“Twitter Institutes Country Withheld Content Tool in Pakistan for the First Time,” read the headline of a post published on the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse website on May 18, 2014. In it were details of five requests made to Twitter by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), seeking to restrict `blasphemous’ and`unethical’ tweets and user accounts, which Twitter complied with.

The requests made by the PTA named specific accounts and links to tweets that it wanted ‘withheld’ from Pakistan. The first request was made on May 5, 2014, and the most recent on May 14, 2014. The ‘law’ cited in all the requests, was the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). However, which PPC provision/clause was applicable in each case, was not specified. While it’s not difficult to guess what provision was used to justify blasphemous content, what acceptable legal definition PTA used for ‘unethical’ content that was accepted by Twitter is quite unclear.

The first reported use of Twitter’s Country Withheld Content tool was back in 2012, when Twitter blocked content posted by a “neo-Nazi group”, in compliance with local authorities in Germany. This tool, according to Twitter, serves the company’s goal “to respect users’ expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws”. Explaining the functionality of the tool, information on Twitter’s website suggests content is not removed but restricted from viewing for users in the country where the request originates. This, says Twitter, is determined by the IP address of its users.

After receiving what it says is “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorised entity” i.e. a representative of government or law-enforcement agency, through an online form on its website, these are the steps that follow: Twitter notifies the user via email unless “legally prohibited from doing so”; the content in question is marked in grey through a “visual indicator”; the user can challenge the request or alternately remove the material at will.

Twitter is not the only platform to have rolled out a country-specific tool. Google and YouTube offer localised versions of their platforms that enable them to comply with local laws without violating free expression standards at home.

In the past, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google have been blocked in countries for not complying with government requests to censor content. In Pakistan, Facebook was blocked for a month in 2010; Twitter for half a day in 2012 and the ban on YouTube continues, nearing two years now.

It appears that in an attempt to keep their services accessible and functioning, companies are inventing ways of finding a way to work with governments while trying to keep users happy at the same time. But the question is, is this middle-ground good enough for end-users?

While anti-Islamic, blasphemous and pornographic content are cited as reasons for blocking of content on the Internet in Pakistan, it is no secret that much more has been blocked due to personal and political interests by those who have the least bit of clout and ability to exert themselves.

On paper, this is what is known of the blocking ‘process’ vis-à-vis the Internet in Pakistan. The IMCEW (Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites), established in 2006 through an executive order, meets to deliberate on what blasphemous and pornographic content should be blocked on the Internet.

The secretariat of the IMCEW is the Ministry for Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT), and the federal IT secretary its convener. The IMCEW issues directives to the PTA, with a list of what needs to be blocked. In 2012, through a policy directive, the MOITT instructed the PTA to establish a complaints cell to receive complaint from users regarding blasphemous content, and take action accordingly.

The IMCEW comprises representatives of various ministries and a nominee of the Inter-Services Intelligence. But that is about all that is known of it. Who are the members, what are its terms of reference, how decisions are reached is not public knowledge, just like content removal and restriction requests never made public knowledge.

The only instances Internet users in the country find out are through leaks by ISPs or, when a hue and cry is raised on social media when a website is found blocked.

Neither the IMCEW nor the PTA derives any authority through law — and by law the reference is not to the PPC but legislation that vests powers in them to decide and route content requests. Yet, companies seem to be willing to work with what is in place — legal or not — in the interim.

Ready compliance by companies without any legal verification at the very least is dangerously steering this in a direction where governments and companies decide the standards of what is acceptable and what isn’t, what users can view and what they can’t — more so in countries where citizens are disempowered due to missing safeguards for expression and right to information.

The writer is the director of Bolo Bhi.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2014

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