Hello world! The internet is blocked in Pakistan again, but we are publishing this using a VPN

The stated goal of network shutdowns is to protect citizens. In Pakistan, it’s to protect anyone but civilians.
Published May 10, 2023

The interior ministry has turned the switch off yet again. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has said that mobile broadband services will remain suspended nationwide for an “indefinite period” on the interior ministry’s instructions, amid protests following PTI chief Imran Khan’s arrest on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Netblocks, an organisation that tracks internet outages, on Tuesday said access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube was also restricted across Pakistan.

Bypassing the barricades

Pakistanis are not unfamiliar with the state’s censorship playbook. In a country where disruptions to internet services and digital platforms have become increasingly frequent, citizens are finding creative workarounds to break through Pakistan’s digital barricades.

As reports of disruptions started trickling in from across the country on Tuesday evening, #UseVPN quickly found its spot on Twitter’s trending panel. According to the latest research by 10VPN, demand for VPN services spiked by 489 per cent on May 9, compared to the daily average over the preceding 28 days.

VPNs are a common way of accessing content or websites blocked in a country. One form of blocking, which is usually done by telecommunication operators such as the ongoing block in Pakistan, is to prevent anyone with a local IP from reaching a banned site. VPNs hide your IP address by routing the connection through a remote server, so it looks like you’re accessing the website from outside the country.

Pakistanis may not be known for digital literacy, but they were quick to adapt to VPN use for communication (not that some cheeky ones weren't already using it). From tutorials on how to use VPNs on TikTok to users listing VPN providers on Twitter, it’s almost become first-hand knowledge even for my otherwise tech-challenged mother to hop between servers to access the internet.

Jumping at the opportunity, VPN providers such as TorGuard announced they were providing a 50pc discount on VPN services and a 72pc discount on their new V2Ray proxy service.

That said, the future of Pakistan’s internet remains bleak. As protesters, activists and journalists become accustomed to using VPNs to circumvent state censorship, authorities have been anxious to control its use since 2010. Every now and then, we see a public call for registration of VPNs by the PTA. “Usage of any mode of communication such as VPN by means of which communication becomes hidden or encrypted is a violation of PTA regulations,” the authority has warned.

The authority maintains the advertisement was issued in light of clause 6 of the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations (MRITT), 2010. The regulation under MRITT mandates the monitoring and blocking of any traffic (encrypted or not), including voice and data, originating or terminating in Pakistan. This includes all encrypted VoIP services.

If such regulations can’t be enforced, there are other measures empowering the state’s capabilities. Brought under the garb to monitor and curb “grey traffic” — which inclu­des Voice over Internet Protocol and Virtual Private Networks — the PTA has deployed a sophisticated web monitoring system. The equipment, which is worth $18.5m, is provided by Canada-based company Sandvine — which has a record of aiding authoritarian regimes in surveillance. The web monitoring system can use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to monitor communications and measure and record traffic on behalf of the PTA.

The impact of shutdowns

Amid real concerns of a potential default, authorities have prioritised censorship over the economy. According to a ProPakistani report, telecom operators have incurred an estimated revenue loss of Rs820 million, while the government has lost around Rs287 million in tax revenue.

Six internet shutdowns that occurred in Pakistan between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, cost the country’s economy a whopping $69.7 million, contributing to a total global cost of $2.4 billion, according to Darrell West in a study published by Centre for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution.

Besides the glaring impact on the economy, network shutdowns violate a range of human rights, and are neither necessary nor proportionate responses. People employed by remote businesses' say their productivity has been slowed down due to slow internet. Reporter friends are scrambling to access information on Twitter, and update stories on news websites. Students had to face last-minute cancellations of exams.

On top of that, widespread condemnations from international organisations such as Amnesty International, Access Now, and Global Network Initiative, draw further global scrutiny and create risks for investment in Pakistan.

The 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organisation) Act states that network providers would be compensated for the losses they may have suffered as a result of action taken under Section 54, which has been used to justify shutdowns. This is, however, a longstanding issue now as network shutdowns become the norm.

The stated goal of network shutdowns is to protect citizens. In Pakistan, it’s to protect anyone but civilians.

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