Choosing Our Targets for #TwitterTheocracy

June 20, 2014


Secular activists and other free speech advocates were pleased to see Twitter unlock the accounts of users who had been blocked at the request of the Pakistani government. So are we, but we also want to make clear that the problem has not by any means been solved.

A quick catch-up: Government officials in Pakistan had determined that certain Twitter accounts and individual tweets were somehow “blasphemous,” and Twitter complied with their request to block their content within Pakistan. A coalition of freethought groups — including CFI, the Ex-Muslims of North America, and many more — then worked in concert to raise awareness of the censorship and take the perpetrators to task with the #TwitterTheocracy hashtag, and a letter to Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador asking them to cease their policy of censorship. Three days ago, Twitter stated that it had reexamined the requests from Pakistan, decided that they no longer would comply, and they released the accounts and tweets.

What you may have noticed was that 1) the letter, which was primarily drafted by CFI (more specifically our public policy director Michael De Dora) was directed solely at Pakistan, and there was no similar communication to Twitter, and 2) while many groups and individuals vociferously criticized Twitter during the campaign, CFI did not. Why?

American media and technology companies frequently have to contend with treacherous cultural and political terrain when they operate in different parts of the world. A few years ago, Google set up shop in China, but complied with the Chinese government’s restrictions on what content it would surface in searches. Google faced a great deal of backlash for their decision, and eventually pulled out of the country. But while they were there, it wasn’t a black-and-white issue of a big corporation being a shill for a government. They made the case that having some Google in China — where a lot of content was blocked, but millions of Chinese would now have easier access to what Google was allowed to provide — was better for the Chinese people (and for Google) than no Google at all. Reasonable people can debate this, and there is merit to both sides.

It is a similar situation for Twitter in Pakistan. Twitter likely saw this kind of compliance as a price of being able to do business and make its service available in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world. It was only weeks ago that Turkey’s Prime Minister was threatening to “eradicate” Twitter! When Google was forced to block content in China, it would alert the person doing the search that what they were looking for was unavailable and why: state restrictions. Similarly, while complying with Pakistan’s censorship requests, Twitter reported each incident to the website, offering a degree of transparency to the rest of the world as to what it was being compelled to do.

What will be the consequences of Twitter now unlocking these blocked accounts? They must presume there’s a possibility that their service will be blocked entirely in Pakistan. While that would be bad for Twitter, it would also be pretty bad for people in Pakistan who use Twitter as a prime engine for communication, activism, and dissent. So as with Google in China, which is better? A censored Twitter in Pakistan, or no Twitter in Pakistan?

Perhaps no one will have to make that choice, and Pakistan will find it more valuable to allow Twitter to operate as it should without restriction. That’s the outcome we at CFI are working toward, which is why we decided not to pile on Twitter during the #TwitterTheocracy campaign, but instead focus our ire on Pakistan and its censorship and blasphemy laws. For that’s what we believe the real problem is, the real threat to free expression and human rights: Not Twitter’s selective acquiescence, but the worldwide crisis of blasphemy laws, the persecution of people for their beliefs, and the criminalization of expressions of dissent.

We fully understand why many (or most) groups or individuals decided to concentrate their efforts on Twitter for this particular campaign – Twitter made a choice to play along with a theocratic regime’s censorship, and there is no reason why they should not be pressed to answer for it. Regardless of how difficult or complicated the choice they had to make was, it was still their choice. This post is not a critique of a Twitter-centric approach, but merely an explanation of why CFI placed its emphasis where it did.

We’re glad that Twitter has changed its mind on these individual accounts and tweets, but the repressive source of that censorship still very much exists, and that’s where we’re putting our focus.


Learn more about some of the free expression cases we work on at CFI at our Campaign for Free Expression, and our more recent activism on behalf of people like Raif Badawi of Saudi Arabia and Meriam Ibrahim of Sudan.