KARACHI: In view of a surge in legal requests for content removal from Pakistani authorities to Twitter, the micro-blogging website has said its policy is to err on the side of freedom of expression.

It has further clarified that when it receives an official report against an account or tweet, it does not necessarily mean that it will take action on that report.

“We have a specially trained team that reviews each report against the Twitter Rules and our Terms of Service (ToS) and determines whether or not it is in violation,” a Twitter spokesperson told Dawn.

On Monday, lawyer Reema Omer took to the micro-blogging website to point out that Twitter had received “official correspondence” that three of her tweets were in violation of the Pakistani law.

“Interesting times where ‘officials’ see references to the law — i.e., the Constitution + judgements of high courts — as a violation of the law,” she had said, sharing screenshots of her tweets wherein she had questioned the status of military courts under the Constitution.

However, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry denied the government’s involvement in reporting the lawyer’s tweets about military courts to Twitter, saying it was an academic debate and the government had no reason to question it.

In recent months many local and international users have reported they have received notices from Twitter saying complaints have been filed that their tweets are “in violation of the Pakistani law”.

“We are writing to inform you that Twitter has received official correspondence regarding your Twitter account, Twitter has not taken any action on the reported content at this time. We are only writing to inform you that content posted to your account has been mentioned in a complaint,” reads the alert in such cases.

Twitter, however, maintained that it was committed to “transparency and empowerment” and determined to protect its users’ personal interests.

The Twitter official pointed out that the reported content was reviewed for any indications that the legal request sought to restrict or “freeze” freedom of expression raised other Twitter policy concerns (accounts belonging to journalists, verified accounts or accounts containing political speech).

What constitutes a legal request?

Twitter sometimes receives legal requests alleging that content posted to Twitter may be illegal in one or more countries around the world. For example, the content allegedly may be in violation of laws related to defamation or against national security. Requests may also be filed that a particular content is potentially in violation of Twitter’s ToS or Rules.

These requests in the form of subpoenas, court orders or other legal documents cite a statute or other law in association with some sort of claim or demand.

In Pakistan’s case, the government — as mentioned in the website’s transparency report — specified tweets for violation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

Who can submit legal requests to Twitter?

Law enforcement agencies, government agencies, a lawyer representing a criminal defendant, or a civil litigant can submit legal requests to Twitter.

According to a Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) official, apart from government authorities, the Federal Investigation Agency and law enforcement agencies could report content to Twitter in their official capacity.

However, according to Farieha Aziz, a co-founder of the digital advocacy group Bolo Bhi, “Nobody other than PTA has the legal mandate under PECA to make official requests, however questionable the mandate itself is, constitutionally. The federal government or any other federal or law enforcement agency is not authorised, as per this law, to perform this function.”

How does Twitter determine if content should be removed?

The outcome is different, depending on whether the reported content violates Twitter’s ToS or Rules or whether it is alleged to be illegal in a certain jurisdiction but does not otherwise violate Twitter’s ToS or Rules.

If the reported content violates Twitter’s ToS or Rules, it is removed from the Twitter platform. If the content does not violate Twitter’s ToS or Rules, but is alleged to be illegal in one or more jurisdictions, the platform may withhold access to it in the location concerned.

According to the Twitter transparency report for 2018, the total number of accounts reported by Pakistani authorities to Twitter for alleged offences like “spreading hate material” and “inciting violence” shot up to over 3,000 in the first six months of the year. Of the 3,004 profiles specified, some content was removed from 141 accounts for violating Twitter’s ToS. However, Twitter declined all the requests for account information and removal.

Explaining the reasons for not taking action on content reported by government authorities, Twitter said: “We received a legal demand from the Pakistani government specifying 79 tweets for violations of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). The majority of the tweets contained depictions and caricatures of Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him]. The reported tweets did not violate our ToS and, therefore, no action was taken.”

“It is time to ask the government and legislators when Section 37 of PECA will be scrapped, which enables these requests,” said Ms Aziz.

Section 37 of the cybercrimes law chalks out restrictions allowing for the PTA to “block, remove and/or issue directions to censor online content if it considers it necessary to do so in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court”.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2019


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