Govt actively monitored internet during Covid: PTA

Published February 2, 2021
The year Pakistan’s internet users crossed 90 million with a broadband penetration of 42.2pc, the government led consistent efforts to regulate the online experience of consumers. — Courtesy MIT Tech Review Pakistan
The year Pakistan’s internet users crossed 90 million with a broadband penetration of 42.2pc, the government led consistent efforts to regulate the online experience of consumers. — Courtesy MIT Tech Review Pakistan

AARHUS (Denmark): The year Pakistan’s internet users crossed 90 million with a broadband penetration of 42.2pc, the government led consistent efforts to regulate the online experience of consumers.

According to the annual report for 2020 released by the Pakistan Telecommuni­cation Authority (PTA), the country’s digital economy has grown enormously during the pandemic as more people are using the internet.

Broadband subscriptions showed growth trends of 17pc during FY2020, crossing the 90.1 million in Oct­ober 2020 mark whereas 4G subscriptions registered an exponential 60pc growth (FY2020). With the expansion of 3G and 4G services, FY2020 also marked an increase of 77pc in data usage.

Number of users cross 90m mark with over 42pc broadband penetration amid lockdown

While there was progress in terms of internet users, access to digital platforms and content was increasingly restricted during the same period. Since 2016, as many as 418,139 URLs have been processed for blocking, the report said. In 2019-20, the regulator blocked 27,986 items online, 8,161 over ‘hate speech’, 6,910 over ‘glory of Islam’, 5,237 over ‘decency and morality’ and 5,053 over ‘defence of Pakistan’.

The report highlighted that in a bid to tackle pornography, the PTA acquired a list of 2,384 websites from Interpol and managed to block them; it also identified and blocked several other URLs and websites containing porn content.

The regulator said unlawful content was being accessed through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and it continued to block proxy websites on the fly. It pointed out that the registration of VPNs was a mandatory requirement under the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations, 2010. To facilitate users, public notices were periodically issued for necessary registration of VPNs through relevant service providers.

The PTA said the blocking of content was an ongoing effort, requiring “collective firewalling efforts”.

Engaging social media firms

During the year under review, the PTA said it pursued active engagement with international social media platforms to ensure that online content is compliant with the prevalent laws and legal frameworks.

In 2020, the PTA approached YouTube, TikTok, Bigo, PUBG and dating apps to immediately block content containing “obscenity, obnoxiousness, immorality, and hate speech” for viewing in Pakistan.

The regulator said it engaged with social media and gaming platforms operating outside Pakistan to keep them informed of local sensitivities including social, ethnic, and religious norms and values, and to instruct them to follow and respect local laws.

An online portal had been established to enable stakeholder organisations to lodge complaints according to their respective domains and scope of work, it said. Currently, 34 stakeholders (including federal and provincial organisations) were using the portal used for monitoring and flagging content, the report added.

OTT services

According to the Telecom Policy 2015, the PTA is mandated to develop a regulatory framework for VoIP and other OTT services that partially or fully substitute traditional licensed telecommunication services.

The PTA said it had initiated a consultation process with different stakeholders including licensed operators, OTT service providers (Google and Facebook) and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) on the subject. The draft regulatory framework would be developed in the light of feedback received from stakeholders, it said.

Cyber security

The PTA claimed that it was developing Critical Telecom Data and Infrastructure Security Regulations (CTDISR), which would pave the way to improve the security of Pakistan’s telecom sector.

Salient features of the framework are cyber security framework; physical and environmental security; monitoring; malware protection; data protection; critical telecom infrastructure management; cyber security incident management; service and cyber security continuity management; and confidentiality of information.

The consultation process, according to the report, had been completed and the regulations were expected to be finalised in the second half of 2020.

Covid’s IT impact

Despite the challenges of Covid-19 in the last quarter of financial year 2020 when businesses were closed, broadband subscriptions crossed 83 million, registering an impressive growth of over 17pc.

As the country moved into the lockdown stage, mobile data traffic in Pakistan increased by around 22pc, mainly in areas with limited fixed networks, the PTA explained.

Data usage trends show that data consumption during the lockdown period (March-June 2020) increased by 19pc; however, data usage increased by 77pc during FY 2020. On the other hand, domestic voice traffic, which increased by 38pc in QE March 2020 experienced 20pc decline in QE-June 2020. This may be attributed to the fact that people shifted to OTT services from traditional voice calls during the pandemic phase.

Technology played a crucial role in the government’s response to the pandemic. Last year in March, the government employed cell phone tracking to trace Covid-19 patients.

According to the PTA report, during March-June 2020, a total of 1,843 million messages were sent to mobile users and more than a million cautionary messages were sent to travellers and persons suspected of contracting the virus.

Additionally, to facilitate operations of educational institutions and businesses, 1,589 IPs were whitelisted to carry out calls voice over internet during the reported period. The PTA also allocated 15 different short codes and seven UAN (Toll-Free Numbers) to government entities working to control the pandemic.

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2021


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