On May 17, Pakistani netizens were seen inquiring about a potential Twitter outage on other social media platforms. Many across the country weren’t able to log on to the micro-blogging website. Almost a week since the outages it remains unclear what cause the blockage.
The first messages of there being a connectivity issue were shared around 10 pm on Sunday, May 17, with the outage lasting till 1 am on Monday. Video streaming service Periscope was also down at the same time.
Frustrated users took to other social media platforms, most notably Facebook, to lodge their complaints. With many still able to log on to Twitter, and others using VPN to sign in, #TwitterDown was a popular hashtag in Pakistan on Sunday and Monday – including on Twitter itself.
Digital activists and rights organizations raised questions over the origins of the blockage, questioning the government’s involvement. The government was urged to take note of the outage and take required action. Many raised concerns over the potential of the state exercising online censorship and restricting freedom of speech.
Bolo Bhi, one of the prominent digital rights organisations in Pakistan, noted that the blocking of Twitter was concerning for the country. It urged the government to be more transparent and share the root of the outage.
“Twitter and Zoom were blocked for access in Pakistan only as part of online censorship. [This was] unrelated to technical Zoom glitches in other parts of world. [It had] similar characteristics to previous documented restrictions in Pakistan,” noted Bolo Bhi Director Usama Khilji.
Online publication Digital Rights Monitor also issued a tweet saying, “Where concerned individuals and civil society representatives speculate it being blocked on account of govt'sorders, ISPs and telcos maintain that they have not received any notice from the authorities to block Twitter services in PK.”
While the cause for Twitter blockage remained unspecified, many users have failed to access popular video conferencing application Zoom, which has become frequently used amidst global lockdowns.
A report published by Internet observing 'NetBlocks' in collaboration with Digital Rights Foundation revealed that Twitter, Periscope, and Zoom were down for multiple service providers for over an hour. The report further underlined that the blockage of the three apps was in complete synchrony.
In a message released officially by Twitter, the social media platform said the disruption in Pakistan was not owing to any issue from its end. Twitter maintained that it had not seen any signs of an outage on its server.
NetBlocks also maintained that the blockage in Pakistan wasn’t related to disruptions in other countries. It also confirmed that Twitter was inaccessible for a large number of users, and slowed down for many others.
“Clarity is needed on this from the government before we can be sure that the authorities blocked Twitter on Pakistani servers. Freedom of expression and access to information arefundamental rights of citizens of Pakistan, and they should be upheld unconditionally,” said Asad Beyg, the founder of Media Matters for Democracy and Media Lab Pakistan.
The government is yet to respond to the questions raised by the rights groups, as the cause of the disruption of the apps remains unknown.