Internet freedom

Updated April 15, 2019

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THE launch of a fresh report on Pakistan’s digital trends has turned the spotlight on a host of milestones and challenges for both citizens and the state.

Titled Pakistan’s Internet Landscape 2018, the report compiled by Bytes for All is a comprehensive document which maps online patterns of activity and their impact on the social, economic and political rights of citizens. The writers of the report pertinently note that it has been released at a time when Pakistan and other countries in the region are witnessing a tussle between a vibrant civil society and a controlling state, which forces both citizens and governments to confront the issues of control when it comes to freedom of expression.

Above all, the report highlights that although internet penetration is increasing in Pakistan, the key issues are lack of access; the potential for online abuse; and censorship.

When it comes to internet usage and access, the urban-rural, socioeconomic divide still exists, leaving Pakistan behind other countries in lists such as the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Inclusive Internet Index 2018, which ranks Pakistan 68th amongst 86 countries. But the report also notes that even with these challenges, usage has increased manifold, presenting a host of new questions.

For instance, the report highlights that regarding blasphemy online, an environment of fear has emerged with the possible addition of clauses specific to blasphemy in the already controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. It argues that this could result in harm both online and offline through the abuse of laws, and says that false blasphemy accusations, as well as the targeting of minorities, was witnessed this year.

Another troubling trend noted by the report is the issue of child pornorgaphy. While the report notes that awareness is being created and some arrests are being made, it says 2018 is “just the tip of the iceberg” and that this year saw focus shift to child pornography being produced and disseminated online from within Pakistan.

When it comes to the issue of censorship, the report talks about how different tactics are employed to intimidate or silence journalists online. It mentions specific cases in which warnings though official channels, such as the FIA, Twitter or even confiscation of devices, are tools through which the state imposes censorship in the digital space. In addition to these tactics, it describes how online ‘mob justice’ warriors spewing hate speech lead to self-censorship.

Overall, the report does not paint a happy picture for the direction in which Pakistan is headed. The gender gap and urban-rural divide in terms of access mean currently the internet is only for a few citizens. If the overall digital environment is plagued with these issues, promising areas such as e-commerce will not be able to thrive. The new government must focus on these areas and work towards an inclusive, free and safe digital space.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2019