Digital backslide

Published May 11, 2023

A COUNTRYWIDE mobile internet and social media shutdown, ostensibly to quell unrest in the wake of PTI protests following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan, is par for the course when it comes to Pakistan’s abysmal state of internet governance.

As outlined in the newly released Pakistan Internet Landscape Report 2022 published by advocacy group Bytes For All, “There is little to celebrate when it comes to Pakistan’s digital front, and the future is at best uncertain, and at worst, set to devolve without comprehensive, sweeping changes in awareness, understanding and action”. The report provides an overview of where the country stands on key information and communication technologies fronts, and it is a largely grim picture.

In terms of internet access and speeds, Pakistan trails far behind the world, with 15pc of the population lacking even basic access, while the rest suffer through slow speeds, unreliable connectivity and internet blackouts as a result of loadshedding, climate crises, or even state-sanctioned blocks — one of the worst examples of which occurred on Tuesday.

The report also noted that cybercrimes have risen greatly over the years, touching over 100,000 complaints last year. Cases of blasphemy accusations stemming from the online space, and the use of the digital sphere to stir up hatred has reached a boiling point, with the report noting that the state’s only response has largely been to incarcerate suspects.

Similarly, the report captures how disinformation online has run rampant, with political parties and other institutions leading the way. This was noted to be coupled with massive breaches of privacy and data security across 2022 in the form of audio leaks from the highest offices and those in power, which begs the questions, who in Pakistan is truly safe online?

The details captured in the report offer a bleak picture, and it is clear that state institutions are primarily culpable for where the country stands on the digital front.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2023

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