ISLAMABAD: Citizens and businesses have urged the government to restore mobile data services, insisting that its absence was leading to great economic costs, affecting millions of citizens who have come to rely on the internet for everything from earning a living to paying bills to buying groceries.
The government suspended internet services on Tuesday after PTI chief Imran Khan’s arrest sparked violent protests across the country.
In a joint statement, more than 100 members of the business community and civil society said, “We … are deeply troubled by and condemn the recently reported and ongoing use of partial and complete Internet shutdowns, as well as targeted content and app blocking, following the nationwide protests.”
They said such shutdowns and blocking or filtering of internet services “unjustifiably limit the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression”.
Stakeholders say network outage creates more problems than it solves
“Tens of millions of Pakistanis rely on internet-dependent services to connect with each other and to undertake essential business activities. By blocking, filtering, or shutting down these services, the government is eroding civic space; fostering a climate of economic uncertainty and disrupting access to healthcare, emergency services and financial services.”
They said such internet disruptions had a negative impact on Pakistani startups, which attracted more than $700 million in investment during 2022 and 2023 and “are playing a critical role in promoting entrepreneurship, job creation, and digitisation across the economy”.
The affected people, they said, also included the hundreds and thousands of freelancers and digital creators.
“We emphatically call on the government of Pakistan to immediately lift restrictions intended to disrupt or prevent the citizens from accessing and disseminating information online and from communicating safely and securely,” they said. “We also urge the government to recognise internet access as a basic fundamental right which can’t be taken away arbitrarily.”
Apart from the general public, hundreds, if not thousands, of companies have also been affected. Ride-hailing companies like Bykea, Careem and InDrive have taken the brunt, as their users — both drivers and passengers — need mobile data on the go.
“The internet service disturbance was not only a loss for our captains, but the customers also face serious difficulty in getting rides to reach their destinations,” a senior official of a ride-hailing company said.
The blockage has also come to bite online food delivery services like Foodpanda and Cheetay. Apart from hundreds of restaurants working with these companies, some 6,000 home chefs have also suffered.
Digital wallets like JazzCash and Easypaisa have reported that the number of daily transactions had shrunk by a third during the 24 hours after internet services were suspended, as shopkeepers and agents who operate like mini-banks using these wallet services and mostly rely on mobile data.
Telecom companies have also slammed the government for suspending mobile internet services.
“Shutting down the internet was not a solution to anything. It creates more problems than it solves,” Jazz Pakistan CEO Aamir Ibrahim tweeted on Wednesday. “For almost 24 hours, 125 million Pakistanis have been without mobile internet — a critical tool in emergencies and productivity.”
Mr Ibrahim also cited a news story by Business Recorder, which quoted sources as saying on Wednesday that telecom operators had suffered Rs820m losses after just one day of internet suspension, whereas the government had itself lost around Rs287m in tax revenue.
He added, “The devastating effect on the economy is quantifiable, but the inconvenience to people is incalculable.”
Muhammad Zohaib Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Software Houses Association, has also strongly criticised the mobile data suspension and described it as a “mindless decision”.
“The IT industry has come to a standstill since Tuesday evening. The internet is our lifeline, our office, our communications infrastructure. The IT industry cannot operate without it,” he said.
He said that the blanket blockage of mobile-based internet services and the slowdown of fixed-line internet in the country due to the emergent political situation was a decision made without consultation.
IT and IT-enabled services (ITeS), Mr Khan said, had already been under pressure due to what he said bad and inconsistent government policies, and the current political turmoil had completely stopped the IT industry’s operations.
He said most IT professionals were working from home due to various reasons like bad law and order situation in some areas and restrictions on women and girls moving around. Besides, those in remote areas had no option but to work from home, he said.
Mr Khan urged Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to intervene and direct the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to restore internet services immediately.
Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2023