Situationer: How is X being throttled in Pakistan?

While PTA and govt officials deny blocking the social media platform, experts tell Dawn authorities have the tools to disrupt the flow of information online.
Published February 26, 2024

FOR over a week now, the morning routines of many netizens have been disrupted by the unceremonious obstruction of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Whether they miss simply looking at the latest news or are having trouble plotting their morning commute — being used to getting real-time traffic updates via X — hundreds (if not thousands) of people have been forced to either use VPNs to access the social media network, or make do without it.

Over the past nine days, whenever one tries to access the X website, or open the app on their smartphones, they are greeted with the same message: “Something went wrong, but don’t fret — let’s give it another shot”, as it invites users to press a button to try their luck again.

So what has happened to the social network, and why, despite exhortations from the Sindh High Court and other fora, haven’t its services been fully restored?

The answers to these questions are murkier than they should be, largely due to a pervasive official silence on the matter.

While PTA and govt officials deny blocking the social media platform, experts tell Dawn authorities have the tools to disrupt the flow of information online

Official silence

On Feb 17, former Rawalpindi commissioner Liaquat Ali Chattha made startling ‘revelations’ about alleged manipulation in the general election results and accused the chief election commissioner and chief justice of being involved in rigging.

What followed the bombshell presser was to be expected: political leaders indulged in recrimination with multiple inquiries ordered into the ex-bureaucrat’s claims.

An unlikely casualty in the charged political atmosphere was the social media platform X, which is seen as a hotbed for political parties’ supporters, activists and journalists to share information — verified and otherwise — that can shape public opinion.

There is also no clarity over who has blocked the platform or who ordered it to be blocked. The Pakis­tan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has not issued any official response on the matter and passed the buck on to the Ministry of Interior.

Last week, caretaker interior minister Gohar Ejaz said he was not aware of any restrictions. Information Minister Murtaza Solangi also den­ied suspending the services of X. Even though the PTA has shrugged its shoulders, it is empowered under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, to block online content.

Blocking the ‘middle man’

According to experts Dawn spoke to, there are multiple methods to block access to online content. There is IP and protocol-based blocking, deep packet inspection-based blocking, URL-based blocking, platform-based blocking, or DNS-based blocking.

Netblocks, which reports on internet disruptions worldwide, reports that access to X has yet to be fully restored in the country.

While there are no indications of a full-fledged blockage anymore, the platform is intermittently accessible with slow load speed to frustrate users. Access via VPN is also being thwarted, according to Netblocks.

A network analysis carried out by digital rights group Bytes for All concluded that PTA might be employing “HTTP blocking utilising geo-blocking technique” to prevent users from accessing X.

According to the report, the connections of users trying to access X from Pakistan are being terminated by the Content Delivery Network (CDN) of US-based company Akamai, which provides content delivery services to websites, thus “effectively blocking access to the platform within the country”.

A CDN is a distributed network of servers, which helps speed up browsing. To put it simply, consider a user in Pakistan trying to access X, which might have its host server in the US.

In this case, the request has to travel from Pakistan to the US and then back to Pakistan. This takes up time and slows down the website.

A CDN solves this problem as it stores a ‘cached’ (copied) version of the website’s content on servers inside Pakistan, or in a nearby country, thus speeding up browsing.

“This also means that while the network must bring around one-third of its content from the original website, a major part of the connection is not between the user and the platform — but between the user and the CDN, which is serving two-thirds of the content,” says Ramsha Jahangir, a technology journalist and policy expert.

“While we can’t be certain what method PTA is employing, [they have attempted] to block content at the CDN level in the past,” she says.

In July 2020, the PTA warned internet operators to block “illegal” content served through CDNs or face “regulatory action”.

National Filtration System?

Haroon Baloch, one of the authors of the Bytes for All analysis, told Dawn that companies like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and X use the Akamai CDN for content delivery in Pakistan.

“We have tracked our packets to an IP [internet protocol] of an Akamai server installed in Italy. The content delivery of X in Pakistan is being done through those servers.”

Based on their analysis, Mr Baloch added that there is a possibility of Akamai facilitating PTA in blocking access to X since the traffic is not going beyond Akamai’s servers.

This process of blocking content from a specific location is called “HTTP geo-blocking”.

Dawn reached out to Akamai for comment, but no response was received until going to print.

However, Mr Baloch said their findings were a result of a small sample of X traffic, and further research might indicate other server locations or blocking techniques.

Over time, the PTA has acquired the technology to bypass ISPs and censor content by itself.

In December 2018, the authority outsourced a web management system (WMS) from a Canadian company, Sandvine, said Ms Jahangir who accessed the contract for the WMS and reported it a year later.

However, the five-year contract, signed by telecom operators, long-distance and international operators, landing station licensees and PTA, has now expired, she added.

Pakistan has recently acquired a new National Filtration System to block websites with the help of China, according to Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi. “There is a lot of testing as well. For one or two hours each day, X becomes accessible… my understanding is that PTA is also testing these systems.”

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2024