ISLAMABAD: As mobile services across the country are suspended for two days in the wake of security concerns on Ashura, a report launched by digital rights group Bytes For All argues that such shutdowns "threaten the very right these practices seek to preserve: the right to life."
The report, titled Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns highlights the socio-economic losses incurred by the country due to suspension of cell phone services.
According to the report, Pakistan's economy is severely impacted by network shutdowns. The government lost Rs507 million in tax revenue during Eid in 2012 and Rs500m during Ashura during the month of Muharram in November 2012 due to suspension of mobile services.
Since the first wide-scale shutdowns, the government often instructs telecommunication operators to suspend mobile and/or Internet networks where intelligence indicates a threat to national security, especially in major cities.
Many experts argue that network shutdowns violate a range of human rights, and are neither necessary nor proportionate responses to potential violent activities, the report says.
The Pakistani government’s security concerns are valid and it has an obligation to take all reasonable steps to protect civilian lives, the report says, while adding "experts are concerned that network shutdowns are becoming the norm, rather than an exception, and are being utilised as the main strategy to curb terrorism, when instead, improving other methods of investigation is required."
TIMELINE OF SHUTDOWNS 2012-2015
Impacts of mobile services blackouts
Using Telenor Pakistan as a case study, the report underlines the following adverse impacts of network shutdowns to be considered by human rights stakeholders:
Fully functioning communication systems are essential in emergency situations, the report says. According to a survey conducted for the research, a major concern for citizens stuck in protests or violence while cell phone services are suspended is their inability to call friends or relatives for help, or trace their family and friends — which can contribute to the panic.
"Relying on network shutdowns to prevent terrorist attacks deprives both citizens and law enforcement alike the opportunity to use communication tools in the fight against terrorism."
Restricted access to emergency services
Several emergency services become inaccessible during mobile networks shutdowns as contacting them from a mobile phone becomes impossible, the report states. A survey respondent expressed concern that she would feel more insecure to be not able to call the police or an ambulance during an emergency situation.
Medical practitioners also opined that lack of communication services affects patients in need of healthcare.
In response to the survey, people employed by businesses said their productivity was slowed down due to mobile networks shutdown, as they could not receive or make calls.
Journalists complained that the shutdowns affected their ability to research or file stories on deadline.
Some office workers commented that they were unable to work due to the shutdown of email and Internet connections, said the report.
Student respondents to the survey said they could not access research materials or access online lessons while mobile networks were nonfunctional. According to the report, some students said they were “unable to complete university assignments and projects” while one said, “notes and slides cannot be downloaded to help with exam revision.”
Human rights defenders
Human rights organisations use communication technology to monitor situations and document events as they unfold. Thus the cause or campaign a group is focusing on is impacted during mobile networks shutdowns, the report maintains.
The report underscores the example of Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has detailed the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for gathering information on human rights violations and drawing attention to situations of actual or potential abuses by “live-tweeting”
It was reported that a network shutdown during Eid in 2012 caused the Government of Pakistan an estimated loss of Rs507 million (US $49m) in taxes from the mobile operators to the exchequer.
Similarly, during suspension of mobile services in November 2012 during Ashura, are estimated to have caused Rs500m (US $49.02m) of losses to the government in tax revenue from cellular subscribers, the report says.
The 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organisation) Act states that network providers would be compensated for the losses they may have suffered as a result of action taken under Section 54, which has been used to justify shutdowns. However, the report says, compensation to operators is an issue that has not been resolved.
Director CIHR Dr. Ben Wagner comments on the findings of the report as: “The goal of network shutdowns is supposed to be protecting civilian lives, but they may indeed have the opposite effect. They put civilians at risks, because emergency services cannot operate.”