Pakistan censors Twitter: all may not be what it seems

Was the Pakistani Twitter shutdown just about squelching free speech over an art contest, or was there potentially something more?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

This weekend saw a disturbing and ultimately pointless battle between censorship and citizen activism in the country of Pakistan.

The story is a bit bizarre. Apparently, there was some sort of picture drawing competition in which artists were asked to draw caricatures of an Islamic sacred figure.

Apparently offended by this contest and uncomfortable with what might be presented by the artists, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority decided to shut off Twitter access to the entire nation.

Pakistan, among other nations, does not provide a guarantee of free speech, as we do in our First Amendment.

See also: Free speech: Why I'm lucky to live in America, not Iran

But this is a weirder story. First, apparently, as reported by The Express Tribune in Pakistan, the Pakistani government contacted Facebook and requested the company remove posts about the contest.

Facebook apparently complied with the Pakistani government's censorship request.

Then, the Pakistani government contacted Twitter with the same request. Twitter refused to take down the posts, so Pakistan decided to block Twitter.

After all, why should 177 million people be allowed to access Twitter when they might look at a silly cartoon and be shocked?

The plot thinnens. After about eight hours, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani ordered Twitter access to be restored. The masses were now able to share information about that rad tune they just listened to, the questionable quality of the Balti Gosht at the corner bistro in Karachi, and even a favorite article or two.

So what does this all mean?

Did the Pakistani government lose its nerve? Did the voice of the people reach the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad? Or was something more sinister afoot?

The fact is we don't know, but there's some interesting speculation which, in my professional opinion, has some semblance of credibility.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Shahzad Ahmad, who runs an organization that monitors Internet freedom in Pakistan speculates that the blockage of Twitter had little to do with the art contest and a lot more to do with testing whether a blockage is possible.

Ahmad contends that because elections are near, the government is testing whether it would be possible to block Twitter and other services.

This has something of a ring of truth. We've seen tentative cyberattacks over and over by nation states, testing to see where there are weaknesses. We also saw how Twitter fueled the protests in Iran over election results.

Although I certainly can't read the minds of Pakistani government officials, it is well within the realm of possibility that they might test whether or not they could shut down communications over the Internet during or after the next round of elections.

And yes, Pakistan is an American ally. So much for truth, justice, and the American way.

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