ISLAMABAD: The social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, remained suspended for a third consecutive day in the country on Monday, with only occasional connectivity during this period.

As the unannounced suspension of social media platforms continued, experts expressed fears that regular suspension of social media platforms could lead to a rise in cybercrimes as a large number of Pakistanis were downloading unauthenticated and unverified VPNs and, therefore, making their mobile phones vulnerable to hacking.

While the suspension of X services was massively felt in the country and widely discussed at other social media platforms, no government authority in the country took responsibility for the suspension of its services, or cited any reason for its blocking.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has not only refrained from giving any reason for the suspension of X services since Saturday, but on asking this question responded the answer may be sought from the interior ministry.

PM vows to defend bureaucrats against ‘weaponisation’ of social media; president laments inability to take criticism

On the other hand, Interior Minister Gohar Ijaz told Dawn that the interior ministry was not responsible for social media platforms.

“The erratic functioning of X (formerly Twitter) or any other social media platform comes under the jurisdiction of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority,” the minister said.

A senior official of one internet service provider said the country was witnessing ‘Twitter load-shedding’ as its services remain suspended for long hours and become functioning for some time and the same pattern has been occurring since Saturday.

“Possibly to avoid making any record, we are having the services back so that Pakistan does not enter into any race of longest short-term suspension of X without any reason,” the official said.

Digital rights activist and member of the UN Secretary General’s advisory board on AI Nighat Dad said that there cannot be a blanket ban at any platform and it was a violation of the fundamental rights of the people.

“Such blanket bans would only increase chaos in society and increase disinformation in the current political scenario,” Ms Dad told Dawn.

The disruption began after a statement about allegations of rigging in the February 8 polls was made by former Commissioner of Rawalpindi Division Liaquat Ali Chattha in a press conference, which took the social media platform by storm.

Mr Chattha had claimed that candidates who were “losing” elections “were made to win” and the process to justify the manipulated results was still going in “an organised manner at some offices”.

The X services remained suspended in the country on Sunday too and the global internet monitor Netblocks reported that ‘X’ had been restricted in Pakistan for 24 hours and called it “the latest and longest in a series of nation-scale internet censorship measures imposed by authorities as reports of election fraud emerge”.

The digital rights activists have opposed the suspension though it was available to those users who have installed virtual private networks (VPNs) on their mobile phones.

Usama Khilji, director of BoloBhi, pointed out that a post was uploaded by the caretaker IT Minister Umar Saif, and said Mr Saif was “using a VPN to tweet about IT initiatives in Pakistan as Twitter/X remains blocked for a third day”.

As the Telecom Operators Association (TOA) has declined to comment over the issue, one member of the TOA said that more people were installing VPNs to access social media platforms due to their regular and prolonged suspension in the country.

“But by using this option they are making themselves vulnerable to hacking and cyberattacks because there was no authentication and verification of most of the VPNs,” the TOA member said.

“By installing VPNs we allow the software to access our data, photos etc and it could contain viruses, too. And if any targeted malware is launched, Pakistan could suffer from a digital crisis as most of the people even have bank details or banking apps in their mobile phones,” he said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also criticised the suspension of X platform services in the country.

In a statement, the Commission said that such a move infringed on the people’s right to democratic decision making, information and expression.

The HRCP called upon the authorities to stop this practice immediately.

PM vows to defend civil servants

Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar on Monday vowed that the State of Pakistan would defend the civil servants in discharging their constitutional duties and act against those “violent trolls” who were involved in blackmailing and pressurising them.

In a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the prime minister said the people of the country had spoken with a clear voice on Feb 8 and they had given a split mandate.

“Some elements with a proven track record of violent behaviour and vigilantism (however) are now using different tricks, including weaponisation of social media in blackmailing, vigilantism and pressurising civil servants to switch their loyalties from the State of Pakistan to the violent gang,” the prime minister said.

Such an action, he said, was a clear violation of the Article 5 and other articles of the Constitution and the laws of the land.

“The State of Pakistan shall defend the civil servants in discharging their constitutional duties, act against these violent trolls and ensure exemplary punishment to them.”

Mr Kakar said that there should be no doubt about the government’s commitment to the noble civil servants serving the State and the people of Pakistan.

President Dr Arif Alvi

President Dr Arif Alvi lamented the closure of different social media websites in the country and attributed this move to a deficiency in the intellectual capacity to handle criticism.

Speaking on Monday at the third edition of the Hosting Business Net 2024, a platform to promote financial inclusion and digital transformation and recognise contributions of companies working in this sector, Dr Alvi stressed the need for respecting the mandate of the people.

“It is regrettable that competent people are being ousted from the political arena,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2024

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