ON Sunday night, many internet users across Pakistan found that they were unable to access Twitter, its video-streaming service Periscope, or the popular videoconferencing app Zoom for several hours. In a subsequent analysis of network data from that time, the internet freedom monitor Netblocks and Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation reported that the disruption was localised to Pakistan. The outage, which seemed to only specifically affect access to these particular platforms, led to much speculation about the cause of the disruption, and conjecture that it may have been done deliberately at a time when an online videoconference by those critical of state policies was also being aired via these services. The report concluded, “Sunday’s incident matches the characteristics of previous documented restrictions applied on grounds of national security or to prevent unrest.”
If it is indeed true that the outage, however brief, was deliberately caused, it is especially troubling in the context of feverish attempts in recent years to expand the state’s power to monitor and control social media usage in Pakistan — and, in turn, its users — the most recent example of which has been the controversial Citizen Protection (Against Online Harms) Rules. That the PTA has failed to provide an explanation despite repeated requests to do so by this paper as well as digital rights experts only compounds these concerns. These tendencies are utterly counterproductive to Pakistan’s interests. We have nothing to gain from a growing intolerance towards expression of dissent; or from eroding public trust in institutions through a lack of transparency and due process of the law; or — particularly at a time when online connectivity is the lifeline through which many business, educational and social activities are being sustained — to casually ignore internet users’ concerns of being abruptly cut off from the services they now rely heavily upon. Pakistan’s attitude towards internet governance must be enabling, not oppressive or opaque. Intentional or not, the irony that such an outage would happen on World Telecommunication and Information Society Day is not lost on anyone.
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020