Sure, Draw Something. Just Not The Prophet

Pictures of the Prophet Mohammad have always been a highly contentious issue — they’re not explicitly prohibited in the Qu’ran but many Sunni Muslims forbid the idea, while others do not seem to mind as much. Among the latter group are those who feel that banning such images is a restriction on freedom of expression. The issue at the center of the Pakistan-blocks-Twitter story today has been reported to be around a viral activist campaign that’s been running for the past few years to point attention to this.

But as with the actual blocking of Twitter itself in Pakistan — there has been no official Pakistani government statement about what is actually behind the current Twitter block at the moment (here is a screenshot of an alleged email ordering the block to ISPs with no specific reason behind it) — it’s hard to pin down exactly what content was actually sent around that caused the block in the first place.

And at least one group is raising the question of whether this blockage could be related to the government testing an image filtering service — something with wider-ranging implications.

Update: Twitter is back up, and we have a full, separate post on that here.

A Prophet-drawing campaign started on Facebook in 2010 with a specific page, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, created in response to the TV show South Park getting some heat for depicting the Prophet. The EDMD page was eventually taken down; but not before resulting in a temporary Facebook block in Pakistan. This year, according to Wikipedia, EDMD was specifically geared at sending pictures around via Twitter, to protest the arrest of Saudi poet/journalist Hamza Kashgari for writing “insulting” tweets about the Prophet. However, there are a number of Facebook pages that come up when one searches for “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” — not clear whether any of these are “official.”

And at least one Pakistani blogger/activist (and, yes, dentist) Awab Alvi has raised the point that there may be no direct blasphemy accusation involved today at all. In a blog post Alvi explains:

Ever since the reports emerged we have asked affected users to help test the site from their ISP connections and within minutes we had hundreds of reports The traceroute shows a very interesting fact, the block is at the DNS level, the url is not resolving right from the get go… My gutt [sic] feeling is that PTA is just testing their URL Filtering system, we had reports of them testing some image servers on facebook last week, and it disappeared by the evening. PTA choose Sunday to avoid any legal backlash exploiting the courts day off….

…The civil society has to its credit a stay order on the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority preventing them from blocking websites obtained on 19th April 2012 which can be used against them.

Once they get through these testing days I am sure it can be later used as and when needed. Though the argument presented by PTA is that it needs this technology to crack down on Terrorism related issue, but one may never know when it can be used for political censorship

Regardless of what is really behind today’s Twitter block, the issue of not being able to easily access the social network clearly touches on a sensitive point in Pakistan around freedom of expression: watch #twitterban to see how people in Pakistan and elsewhere are responding to the story.

We have contacted the Ministry, Facebook and Twitter to try to get more information on this.