Big Tech and Censorship

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“Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there is freedom of the press…”, article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution reads. However, the article does not end there. He goes on to say that this right is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in “the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part of it. – here, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency. or morality, or in matters of contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offense.

The government of Pakistan is often more interested in jumping directly to whatever “reasonable restrictions” it can impose – not realizing that there is a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression first and foremost. It’s no secret that, despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claims that the media has never been so free in Pakistan’s history, there has been a crackdown on dissenting voices.

Recently, journalist Asad Ali Toor’s Twitter account was suspended. Asad is known to be a critical voice. He reports that he received an email from Twitter indicating that the Pakistani government had reported his account. In the same email, Twitter claimed to have found no violations of community guidelines. Twitter then proceeded to suspend his account without notice or explanation. Even though his account was restored after several hours, questions should be asked. This incident is a stark reminder of the power of Big Tech over the content we consume and our access to information.

There is a serious need for Big Techs to be more open and transparent about how they moderate and regulate content. Equally important is the Pakistani government to be more transparent in its requests to remove content.

Mark Zuckerberg told a Senate committee in 2018: “We have a responsibility not only to create tools, but to make sure they are used for good.” Who would define what “good” is? The extent of power held by Big Tech can be measured by the fact that Twitter and Facebook banned the then President of the United States.

Furthermore, the severe impact of Big Tech censorship was seen when it effectively silenced Palestinians who took to social media to post about the violence and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. Facebook attributed the removal of content posted by Palestinians to a “technical bug” and Instagram and Twitter said it was “suspended in error by automated systems.” What were these technical bugs and system errors? And why have they disproportionately and inexplicably targeted content posted by Palestinians? We will never know.

In the modern world, the companies led by Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerburg and the newly named Parag Agrawal have become arbiter of the limitations of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Agrawal has said in the past that we need to “focus less on thinking about free speech, but on how times have changed”. His appointment as CEO of Twitter indicates that the level of censorship and lack of transparency are only getting worse. Businesses run by three men with their own political and personal biases will determine what the rest of the world is allowed to talk about.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, Mark Zuckerberg set up the Facebook Oversight Board (the “Council”) which is an independent body. There are many issues with the Council – the very first being that it is funded by Facebook. Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, said it was the equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration overseen by Boeing. The council said that in making the decision on Donald Trump’s ban, it asked Facebook to respond to requests for information. Facebook declined to respond to seven of these requests for information. This shows that the ultimate power lies with Big Tech. He wants to sort out the information he provides to the Council.

Big Tech has also seen a rapid increase in government requests to remove content posted by journalists and new media. A transparency report released by Twitter in July 2021 found India topped the list of government content removal requests. Next come Turkey, Pakistan and Russia. Once again, Pakistan is at the top of the wrong type of list.

In the second half of 2020, the Pakistani government made 52 requests to Twitter to remove content posted by journalists and news outlets. The government must disclose on what basis it requested content removal and the process for making such requests.

There may be legitimate reasons for requesting removal of content, such as disinformation, hate speech and promotion of violence, etc. However, it is not known how these requests are made and for what reasons they are made. How does the government determine that a particular article or account by a journalist or media outlet should be reported? Are these requests made after considering whether they violate Pakistani law?

Last year, a prime-time reporter was taken off the air indefinitely for talking about an institution. Journalists and political opponents have been included in a report on “anti-state trends” published by the digital media division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Speeches and interviews with former and current political leaders were cut and interrupted. It is no wonder this government does not inspire a lot of confidence when it comes to protecting freedom of expression.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a state has used Big Tech to silence the opposition. The Indian government has asked Twitter to delete dozens of tweets criticizing India’s handling of the pandemic. It is still unclear how the posts implicating Modi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak violated local Indian law.

Even for a few hours, Twitter should not have been able to strip a journalist of his platform and his voice without explanation. There must be an increase in transparency on the part of the Pakistani government and Big Tech. Until then, the future holds the arbitrary suspension of accounts and the increased suppression of anti-government rhetoric.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets @RidaHosain


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