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Authorities temporarily ban Twitter in Pakistan

May 20, 2012 |  7:47 am

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s decision to block access to the online social network Twitter on Sunday drew sharp criticism from human rights activists, who called the move an “ill-advised” attempt at censorship.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority announced the ban, saying it was imposed after Twitter refused to remove postings from its website that the Pakistani government considered offensive to Islam. That material referred to a contest on Facebook to post caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Pakistani government officials said Facebook agreed to heed Pakistan’s concerns about the material, but Twitter refused.

For many Muslims, the depiction of Muhammad is regarded as blasphemous. After the decision was announced, the Pakistan branch of Human Rights Watch issued a statement criticizing the government’s actions. The ban on Twitter, said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch, “is ill-advised, counterproductive and will ultimately prove to be futile, as all such attempts at censorship have proved to be…. Free speech can and should only be countered with free speech.”

Updated at 10:30 p.m.: About eight hours after imposing the ban, the government restored access to the Twitter web site.

The government’s decision mirrored a move in 2010 to block access to Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking website. That ruling was sparked by a campaign on Facebook inviting users to post images of Muhammad on a page called “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!” The Lahore High Court saw the contest as blasphemous and ordered the government to shut down access to Facebook within Pakistan. The website was blocked for about two weeks. After Facebook issued a formal apology, the government lifted the ban.

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology began soliciting proposals from research institutions and software firms for a filtering system capable of blocking as many as 50 million websites deemed by the government to be blasphemous or offensive. Human-rights groups harshly criticized the move as a gateway to Internet censorship. Lawmakers later said the idea was being dropped, but there has been no confirmation from the government that it was abandoning the project.

Last November, the government released a list of more than 1,000 words and phrases that cellphone companies should block from text messages, including “Jesus Christ,” “tongue,” “fairy,” “murder,” and “athlete’s foot.” After a backlash from telecommunications providers and the Pakistani media, authorities backed away from the idea.

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