KARACHI: While the world observed Telecommunication and Information Society Day on Sunday (May 17), social networking site Twitter was inaccessible to users in Pakistan for almost two hours.
The platform’s website, app and video streaming service Periscope were inaccessible across the country from around 10pm till 1.30am, with news feeds refusing to refresh.
Despite this, #TwitterDown was the top trend in the country, with multiple users using VPNs to report the outage on Twitter.
However, Twitter said the disruption to services in the region was not caused from their end. It said the company had so far not seen any indications of an outage on its server.
In a report released on Monday, internet blockage observatory NetBlocks in partnership with the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) confirmed that Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were restricted on multiple internet providers in Pakistan on Sunday evening, commencing approximately from 10.30pm and lasting over an hour.
The global performance data showed that Sunday’s disruption was specific to Pakistan. No widespread user reports of outages were evident in any other country, it said.
Zoom, for instance, was reported to have experienced technical issues worldwide earlier on Sunday, affecting video quality and causing users to drop out of calls. The report said the problems were resolved prior to the onset of the social media disruption in Pakistan.
Traffic monitoring website Down Detector’s live outage map also showed that the outage was only limited to Pakistan.
The bulk of reports from Pakistan described a loss of access to affected services, the report said, adding that other reports had described the “throttling” or slowing of Twitter. The data indicated that backend image and video servers were specifically unavailable during the disruption period.
“The timings confirm that Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were all disrupted in the same time window in Pakistan, and restored at the same moment in a coordinated manner,” the report pointed out.
“Sunday’s disruption of social media and video meeting services in Pakistan is evidenced by multiple datasets and presents a setback for user rights. While citizens remain housebound they are reliant on digital platforms, making it essential that authorities and network operators act transparently and proportionately in keeping with international standards,” Alp Toker, Executive Director of the NetBlocks internet observatory, told Dawn.
On the other hand, ISP providers Storm Fiber and Nayatel told Dawn that they had not received any order from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) or any other government entity to block Twitter on their networks.
However, they said, access to a website could be restricted at gateway level that connects Pakistan to the global communications network but that was under strict government control.
“Some users accessed Twitter on VPNs last night. That indicates it was blocked specifically for Pakistan,” said an industry source. “The PTA can block/unblock sites or URLs without sending any intimation to all operators since it placed its Web Management System (WMS) online,” the source added.
The PTA did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the matter.
Rights groups demand answers
Meanwhile, digital rights groups have called upon the government to issue an official statement on the matter, clarifying whether Twitter was blocked, and if it was, on what grounds.
The Media Matters for Democracy, in a Twitter thread on Monday, said: “This incident merits clarity on part of the authorities, and we demand transparency from PTA on whether inaccessibility of Twitter in Pakistan was by design and done on orders of the government.”
Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, urged the government to take notice of the disruption.
Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2020