Thursday , April 25 2024

‘Internet become Pakistan’s new political battleground’


By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report + Agencies

ISLAMABAD/ LAHORE/ KARACHI: In Pakistan, the internet has become a battleground. Not one fought with tanks and missiles but with throttled bandwidth and targeted shutdowns.

Less than two months into 2024, Pakistan’s 128 million internet users have repeatedly been plunged into digital darkness, facing disruptions to mobile networks and social media platforms. In at least three instances in January, social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram have been out of reach. Now, many users have been disconnected from X (formerly Twitter) for more than 72 hours, marking the longest such disruption witnessed during this year’s election period and continuing past the voting on February 8.

This is not without precedent. Pakistan has a long history of internet disruptions, particularly during periods of political turmoil. The country witnessed a four-day blackout after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2023, and access to social media applications have allegedly been blocked on more than six occasions over the past year alone. Pakistan ranks third in the world for imposing nationwide restrictions. Alarmingly, each measure was carried out with nary a whisper of warning or explanation from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, the telecom and internet regulator, casting serious doubts over the rule of law and Pakistan’s ambition to expand its digital economy.

The ramifications of such actions are far-reaching. Internet censorship not only violates fundamental rights to freedom of expression and access to information but also hinders economic activity and disrupts essential services. According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, a 24-hour suspension of internet services leads to a financial setback of 1.3 billion rupees ($15.6m), equivalent to a remarkable 0.57 percent of the nation’s average daily gross domestic product. Being the third largest base of freelance workers in the world, frequent disruptions can bring to a screeching halt years of progress and plunge foreign clients into a sea of doubt. In today’s interconnected world, digital access is no longer a luxury but a necessity, and its deliberate curtailment stifles innovation and progress. Perhaps most concerning are the impacts of such disruptions on democracy itself. For instance, it is deeply troubling that citizens voting in the country’s first digital election were unable to confirm their polling stations due to a lack of mobile connectivity.

Authoritarian governments have increasingly sought to use internet disruptions and blockades as weapons to crush dissent. Over the past five years, at least 46 governments have imposed social media and messaging app restrictions. The Global Network Initiative has consistently pushed against such intentional restrictions, which almost always violate the principles of proportionality and necessity. Ironically, precedent has shown that disruptions usually don’t achieve their purposes as people often find ways to access applications through less secure channels when faced with restrictions.

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