Pakistan has been included in the list of countries with lowest score for “Freedom on the Net”.

The only countries that ranked below Pakistan included China, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Cuba, Uzbekistan and Bahrain.

The index is prepared by a Washington DC-based research firm called Freedom House.

In its “Freedom on the Net 2016” report, Freedom House said Pakistan scored 69 (with 0 as best and 100 as worst) for internet freedom.

It said that while internet freedom has been impacted with recently introduced cyber crime bill, the overall score remained unchanged due to opening up of YouTube and an increase in over-all internet penetration in the country.

Freedom House criticised Pakistani government for harsh punishments — through newly introduced cyber crime bill — for online speech.

According to the report, key developments for Pakistan from June 2015 till May 2016 included:

  • The National Assembly approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, including clauses which would enable censorship, surveillance, and rights violations.

  • In January 2016, YouTube was unblocked for the first time since 2012, redirecting users to a local version, YouTube PK

  • Antiterrorism courts sentenced two individuals to 13 years in prison each in separate cases involving charges of promoting religious or sectarian hatred on Facebook.

  • Investigators charged a man in Peshawar with violating “privacy of information” and “damage to information systems” based on Twitter posts he wrote about a judge’s relatives in September 2015

Obstacles to access

Freedom on Net report said that Pakistan’s internet penetration increased during last two years, thanks to the launch of 3G and 4G services in the country.

More reliable broadband internet on wired infrastructure, however, remains a distant dream in the country as only urban areas are covered through wired networks, that too with deteriorating media.

The report said a large number of people — mostly in remote areas — lack broadband access and they depend on slow dial-up connections or EDGE, an early mobile internet technology.

It said that while 3G and 4G networks are making inroads, rollouts are slow as telecom operators are focusing more on urban and high revenue generating areas while leaving out rural or less populated spaces.

In such areas, meaningful online activity like multimedia training can be challenging, the report said.

It said several parts of western areas of Pakistan lack internet access, partly because of underdevelopment and partly because of ongoing conflict.

The report further emphasises that while internet access is gradually increasing among girls and women, online harassment has discouraged the utilisation of ICTs by women, especially those under 30.

It said that fingerprint registration for obtaining data SIMs has worried the activists who rely on anonymous internet access.

Restrictions on connectivity

Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) controls the country’s largest internet exchange point, Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE), which has three main nodes — in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore — and 42 smaller nodes nationwide.

PIE operated the nation’s sole internet backbone until 2009, when additional bandwidth was offered by TransWorld Associates on its private fiber-optic cable, TW1.

PTCL also controls access to the three international undersea fiber-optic cables: SEA-ME-WE 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4 connect Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe; and I-ME-WE links India, the Middle East and Western Europe.

The company signed an agreement to build the fourth cable, considered to be one of the world’s largest, in 2014.

The AAE-1 cable, projected to be completed by the end of 2016, will connect countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

With strong outbound bandwidth links, internal cable cuts — due to terrorism or natural disasters — lead to internet shut downs in limited areas.

Moreover, as in previous years, Pakistan faced electricity shortages during the reported period, especially when demand peaked during the summer months, leading to internet down times for individuals across the country.

Cellular suspensions, during religious and political sensitivities, remained a bottleneck for the citizens who were cut from internet on multiple occasions.

ICT market

According to the report there are over 50 ISPs in Pakistan, 10 of which provide DSL services.

It said that the government regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), exerts significant control over internet and mobile providers through a bureaucratic process that includes hefty licensing fees.

Additionally, after 2014, there are 3G and 4G operators that provide internet connectivity in the country. Although so far limited to urban centers, mobile companies report that they are rapidly expanding the networks.

Internet cafes do not require a license to operate, and opening one is relatively easy. Child rights groups have argued that cafes should be regulated to prevent inappropriate access to pornography and gambling sites.

Limits on Content

According to Telecom Policy 2015, PTA is now the in-charge for blocking any content on the internet.

PTA is mandated to monitor and manage content including any blasphemous and pornographic material in conflict with the principles of Islamic way of life as reflected in the Objectives Resolution and Article 31 of the Constitution.

The regulator can itself decide to either ban or not to ban content. Anyone can write to PTA to file a complaint on content that’s objectionable, based on following reasons:

  • If content blasphemous in nature
  • If content is against national interests of Pakistan
  • or if content is obscene in nature

According to Freedom on Net Report 2016, critics believe these issues can serve as cover for politically motivated censorship of dissenting voices. Information perceived as damaging to the image of the military or top politicians, for example, is also targeted.

The report highlights that the whole process for blocking content is not transparent and that there are no published guidelines outlining why content is blocked or how to appeal if something is blocked.

It said that it didn’t find any URL-level blocking or any instances of app-blocking during the reported duration.

Media, diversity, and content manipulation

Despite existing limitations on online content — and looming new ones — Pakistanis have open access to international news organisations and other independent media, as well as a range of websites representing Pakistani political parties, local civil society groups, and international human rights organisations.

ICTs, particularly mobile phones, promote social mobilisation. After YouTube was unblocked, all social networking, blogging, and VoIP applications were available and widely used during the coverage period.

The report, however, said that most online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, separatist movements, and women’s and LGBTI rights.

Access the Freedom on Net report for Pakistan here.

This article originally appeared on ProPakistani and has been reproduced with permission.



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