Why the PTA must come clean about the ‘upgrade’ causing internet disruptions

It is of utmost importance that restrictions on internet access are not taken lightly by the caretaker government, as there is an intrinsic link between democratic participation and internet access.
Published January 23, 2024

Social media applications have been blocked in Pakistan on more than six occasions over the past year alone, each time without any announcement or explanation from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the telecom and internet regulator.

The latest instance was as recent as January 20, before which social media applications were blocked for a few hours on January 7, as well as on December 17, 2023. Besides, access to mobile internet services remained suspended across the country between May 9 and May 12, 2023, following the crackdown against Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leaders and supporters in the wake of Imran Khan’s arrest. This was followed by disruptions on two more occasions till June that year, according to a report by Surfshark, a virtual private network company headquartered in Lithuania.

Despite widespread criticism of such outages, caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi and PTA Director General Ahmed Shamim Pirzada said on Monday that they could not guarantee that internet services would not face disruptions and social media sites would not be blocked during the February 8 general elections. They added that this could continue happening for the next “two to three months” due to “upgradation” of a “system”. No further details were provided, and it seems that they expect Pakistani citizens and businesses to simply accept that there will be internet and social media outages.

It is important to note that in at least four of the instances cited above, the suspension of social media sites coincided with the PTI’s online rallies or fundraisers. For its part, the political party — as well as independent observers and Netblocks, the global monitor of internet disruptions — have noted that the internet censorship is aimed at restricting citizens’ access to PTI’s online rallies, while the May 2023 disruption was also linked to the crackdown on the PTI leadership and its supporters.

The problem with digital censorship

The Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to information under Article 19-A, the right to freedom of speech under Article 19, and right to freedom of association under Article 17. Shutting down the internet violates all of these fundamental rights, as well as orders of the Islamabad High Court (IHC), which ruled in February 2018 that internet shutdowns violate fundamental rights and are unconstitutional.

The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (RBUC) rules, under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) were subsequently sent back to Parliament for revision in 2022 and following the change in government, nothing came of it. In effect, PTA’s efforts to use those rules to censor social media do not stand. The PTA and Ministry of IT must therefore be transparent about what law they are using to suspend internet services and censor social media platforms.

Blocking social media sites and the internet also causes a huge dent to the already precarious economy of Pakistan. According to a research study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (Pide), each instance of internet closure costs the Pakistani economy at least Rs1.3 billion, with grave impact on the telecommunication and financial sectors, online cab services, online food delivery services, freelancing services, commercial inter-city transport services, and postal services and couriers.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which represents social media platforms such as Meta, Google, X, Microsoft, and others, has said they are “increasingly concerned about the investment climate in Pakistan” due to “recent instances of arbitrary throttling” and “intentional disruption of communication services”. With the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) at the Prime Minister’s Office working to bring more investment into Pakistan, such arbitrary blocking of social media platforms and internet services is counterproductive as it discourages investors from doing business with Pakistan, apart from impacting Pakistani freelancers who bring in vital foreign exchange.

The need for transparency

While the PTA has largely been quiet over the nature and cause of these disruptions, the statements on Monday by the caretaker information minister the PTA DG regarding “technical faults” causing social media disruption raises several questions.

First, what is causing these “technical faults”? There has been no transparency regarding this. The PTA DG mentioned the upgradation of a system. Is this perhaps the web monitoring system that was set up in December 2019 under contract from Canadian firm Sandvine using Deep Packet Inspection technology to empower the PTA to implement gateway level blocking and censorship? This is relevant because so far, it is this system that was being employed to block websites in Pakistan. What is the status of the National Filtration System that is being set up?

Second, why is it that these technical faults only arise at the time that the PTI has scheduled online rallies or fundraisers? Is this official policy of the caretaker government to undermine online participation in PTI’s activities by citizens?

Third, is internet access during the elections not considered important by the caretaker government and the PTA? Information regarding polling stations, communication between people, media coverage, and citizens’ updates regarding instances of rigging all rely on social media and the internet. Why is there no guarantee from the government and PTA regarding smooth internet access during the elections, especially when the IHC as well as the United Nations have deemed access to the internet a fundamental right?

It is of utmost importance that restrictions on internet access are not taken lightly by the caretaker government, as there is an intrinsic link between democratic participation and internet access, all the more during election time. Pakistan’s citizens are entitled to transparency, internet access, and the right to vote without disruptions, and internet access is fundamental to this process.

The caretaker government and the PTA must ensure that no internet disruption and social media censorship take place hereafter in the interest of upholding constitutional rights, protecting the economy, and ensuring free and fair elections.

Header image created with AI