KARACHI: In an effort to cripple the capability of terrorists to easily plan and coordinate criminal activities, the Sindh provincial government has decided to block access to popular internet telephony services and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, which they say militants use for communication.
The services affected by the three-month suspension may include Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, among others.
“Criminal elements and terrorists have smartly switched to these networks. Previously, they communicated through their cellular phones. Now they have switched to networks to which we do not have access,” Information Minister Sharjeel Memon told reports at a news conference.
“For this (access) we have written to the federal government to coordinate with these companies to grant us access to them. Until then, we unfortunately have to announce to all citizens of Sindh that these services will be inaccessible all over the province for the next three months,” said the provincial minister.
Provincial Information Minister Sharjeel Memon told journalists that the decision had been taken at a meeting of the law and order committee which was held at the CM House on Thursday and presided over by Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah.
Attended by inspector general of Sindh police, director general of Rangers, chiefs of intelligence agencies and senior officials, the meeting reviewed progress of the ongoing operation against criminal elements in Karachi. It decided to expand its scope to Hyderabad and other cities of Sindh from Friday.
Memon did not spell out how closing down the networks would improve security. But security services say instant messaging and internet telephony are used by militants and other armed groups to plan attacks.
It was also not clear even if or how the ban could be practically enforced.
Social media was abuzz on Thursday with the criticism of the decision with several citizens on Facebook and Twitter protesting the ban.
Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Sindh, also took to Twitter to defend the provincial government’s decision.
“I’d rather lose an app than another life,” he said in a tweet. “We can intercept cell phones and SMS but not Whatsapp, Viber, etc... Temporary ban not permanent.”
Dear Burgers, Sorry abt Skype/Viber/Whtsapp. Excuse us while we catch some terrorists and save some lives. SMS for 3months. Sincerely BBZ— BilawalBhuttoZardari (@BBhuttoZardari) October 3, 2013
Meanwhile reacting on the development, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has said that he was personally not in favour of such a ban.
“I am not personally in favour of such a ban…… a final decision will be taken after receiving the Sindh government’s proposal.”
Hailing his decision of breaking his predecessor Rehman Malik’s tradition of suspending mobile phone services, the interior minister said he was not in favour of troubling the masses pointlessly.
“Soon after taking charge of the interior ministry I have stopped the tradition of blocking mobile networks on certain occasions,” he said, adding that “such steps have never been fruitful”.
Pakistan has taken to clamping down on internet freedoms of late. In September 2012, the Pakistani government blocked YouTube after an anti-Islamic video was posted online.
Since then, Pakistan has blocked liberal websites although has left militant sites untouched. According to a study released Thursday by watchdog Freedom House, Pakistan ranks among the 10 worst countries in terms of freedoms on the internet and social media.
Islamabad recently signed a contract with Canadian company Netsweeper, according to Canadian research group CitizenLab, after advertising for a firm that would allow it to block 50 million websites at a time.