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Recent Twitter Outage: Attempts To Thwart Free Speech Are Always Counterproductive

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Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were disrupted in Pakistan for hours on Sunday night. This mysterious blockade remains unexplained and yet another attempt to curb digital freedoms.

Last Sunday, NayaDaur had organised a Webinar on healthcare crisis that was attended by doctors in Pakistan and abroad, health experts and concerned citizens. The Zoom services faced frequent interruptions especially for those who had joined from Pakistan. One of the speakers — journalist Benazir Shah — encountered serious difficulties in continuing her participation and went offline for some time. It was during this chaotic discussion that disruption of services of Zoom, Twitter and Periscope were  reported by several Pakistanis online. Groups such as Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) and NetBlocks confirmed that these services had been disrupted.

NayaDaur’s webinar was aimed to raise awareness and involve expatriate doctors. Thankfully, it continued despite the problems. But imagine if there were students online, using digital platforms or patients seeking medical advice or others engaged in critical services. Such disruptions are troubling and counterproductive.

According to a Dawn newspaper report, Twitter denied that the disruption to its services in Pakistan was caused from their end. “…Twitter said the disruption to services in the region was not caused from their end. It said the company had so far not seen any indications of an outage on its server”, reported the newspaper.

If the reports by some activist groups are to be believed, there was a carefully orchestrated outage that was neither announced nor explained by the authorities concerned, i.e. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

It is no coincidence that on Sunday night a group of activists, journalists and intellectuals — mostly abroad — were also holding an online conference with largely a Pakistan-based audience. The group known as SAATH is led by former Pakistan ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, among others.

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The members of SAATH conference and their followers created a Twitter storm claiming that the outage was designed to block their engagement with the Pakistani audiences. If this is true, it does not serve Pakistan’s public interest to muzzle dissenting opinions nor does it ‘improve’ Pakistan’s image abroad. For international observers, especially rights groups, this outage would seem ludicrous and a panicky response to a handful of voices that are critical of government’s approach to key questions such as democracy, federalism and human rights.

If anything, these alternative views are vital for the decision-makers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to calibrate their worldview, policy choices as they govern a country hit by a pandemic and an economic meltdown. Such is the mendacity of online campaigns that SAATH (that includes some from the maligned Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement) is considered by many as anti-Pakistan, treasonous network. How are we ever going to build a tolerant and vibrant society when we are not even giving space to views we don’t agree with?

Censorship attempts are useless especially in the digital age where traditional tactics no longer work. Even during the outage, social media users reported that they were using VPNs to continue using Twitter and other digital platforms. Furthermore, Pakistan is neither China, Saudia Arabia, Iran or North Korea where ‘blocking’ can actually work. There is a Constitution that has survived many an assault, an overactive judiciary, and sections of press that resist censorship.

The lesson from the unfortunate episode is clear: Instead of becoming invisible, the small digital conference and its proceedings were amplified. Precisely the opposite of the smart alecks at PTA (or wherever) had allegedly intended to achieve.

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Nevertheless, nothing can be concluded without a proper inquiry and the federal government must investigate into this matter and initiate an accountability process. This incident also underscores the importance of internet rights groups such as NetBlocks and DRF that were providing real time data. Otherwise we would not have known the extent of the blockade that was reportedly engineered.

Finally, it is time for Prime Minister Imran Khan to reflect on his selective approach to social media. His government has invested millions of public funds in social media teams and his party continues to benefit from the massive coverage on traditional and new media. Scores of PTI trolls are active on digital platforms promoting their leaders and defend everything PTI does.

Digital spaces are potentially democratic but squeezing them is unethical and a blow to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

PM Khan should think of the time when his party is no longer in power. Such acts of blocking digital platforms may come back to haunt him and his party. This is why PM Khan needs to take notice and act swiftly if he is even half-serious about his claims of fostering transparency, and ushering in a haqeeqi (real) democracy in Pakistan.

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