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2018 saw greater controls on online free speech, threats to data privacy in Pakistan: report

Updated April 12, 2019

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The Pakistan Internet Landscape Report 2018 was launched at a hotel in Karachi at an event featuring a panel discussion of experts. — Photo by Sukena Rizvi
The Pakistan Internet Landscape Report 2018 was launched at a hotel in Karachi at an event featuring a panel discussion of experts. — Photo by Sukena Rizvi

A comprehensive report recapping developments in the Pakistani cyberspace in 2018 was launched at a hotel in Karachi on Friday, with the findings of the report pointing to a number of downward trends in the local digital sphere including challenges to internet access, greater state controls on free expression and threats to data privacy.

The Pakistan Internet Landscape Report 2018, authored by Chief Digital Strategist and Editor Dawn.com Jahanzaib Haque, was published by human rights and advocacy organisation Bytes For All.

It was launched at an event that included a panel discussion featuring experts including Haque, senior journalist and TV show host Zarrar Khuhro, Co-founder Women's Advancement Hub Aisha Sarwari and Human Rights Defender Marvi Sirmed.

The annual report highlights trends in the local cyberspace related to key issues including internet access, censorship and privacy, cybercrime and hacking, child porn, blasphemy, fake news, e-commerce and fin-tech/branchless banking, among others.

Read: Pakistani media increasingly resorting to self-censorship: report

The report found that online developments throughout 2018 witnessed a number of downward trends, "with the state apparatus and its attempts to control the internet proving to be [the] most troubling", a press release issued by Bytes For All said. One of the few positive developments from last year underlined by the report include the growth in Pakistan's e-commerce and fin-tech/branchless banking sectors.

“Despite taking a few steps forward, at the macro-level the country remains without a cohesive, progressive and all-encompassing approach to the internet and the implications of living in a digitised world,” the author of the report commented.

Editorial: Muzzling critical voices

Sirmed, the Chairman of the Board for Bytes For All, observed: “Since the last edition of this report was published, Pakistan has faced far greater control over free expression, increased censorship, secrecy of public policy decision-making, and violation of fundamental freedoms of citizens.”

Some of the key findings of the report are:

1) Overall internet penetration continues to increase in Pakistan, bolstered largely by mobile phones with internet connections; a total of 62 million 3G/4G subscribers now form 29.55% of penetration.


2) The fundamental challenge of the urban-rural, socio-economic divide in terms of internet access remains in place.


3) Cellular network suspensions have continued in the name of security.


4) The state has made some effort to improve governance through the internet with particular strides by law enforcement agencies.


5) The possible addition of clauses specific to blasphemy in the already controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act could result in serious harm both online and offline through misuse and abuse of the laws.


6) Some strides were made to curb child pornography, with awareness raised and an increasing number of arrests carried out. The extent to which this crime exists across the country is worrying, however.


7) There were a number of large-scale hacks, including ride-hailing app Careem and Bank Islami, that exposed grave threats to data and privacy in Pakistan. The general elections also saw citizen data being shared widely for political purposes.


8) The state and/or other actors have continued surveillance of activists and journalists, resulting in intimidation and harassment.


9) Traditional media and associated journalists have found themselves to be the targets of intimidation, harassment, violence and even monetary losses, resulting in self-censorship across all media, including online.


10) The elections saw all political parties compete fiercely to win votes through the online space. This also resulted in a large volume of hate speech and fake news targeting political opponents.


11) Due in large part to social media, and specifically WhatsApp and Facebook, fake news is an ever-growing challenge in the country.


12) Perhaps the biggest, and arguably most positive, development was the encouraging growth in the fin-tech/online banking and e-commerce front.