ISLAMABAD: While there are serious concerns among users over the continued disruption of the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) for over a fortnight now, a member of the upper house of parliament has called for a permanent ban on all social media.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the authorities are considering a blanket ban on all Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), prompting the IT and services sector to express concerns that such action could severely harm the country’s economy.

Senator Bahramand Khan Tangi, who was recently expelled by the PPP after he moved a resolution seeking the delaying of the Feb 8 polls, has submitted another resolution, this time calling for a complete ban on all social media platforms, deeming them detrimental to the future of the young generation.

The resolution is listed on the agenda of the Senate session scheduled for Monday (March 4).

The resolution submitted by Senator Tangi, who is set to retire on March 11, states that “social media platforms are adversely affecting the young generation in the country… [and] being used for promotion of norms against our religion and culture, creating hatred among people on the grounds of language and religion”.

Reports of blanket ban on VPNs worry industry; activists warn of threats to fundamental rights, economic growth, country’s reputation

The resolution notes with concern “the use of such platforms against the interests of the country through negative and malicious propaganda against the armed forces of Pakistan” and calls upon the Senate to recommend to the government to put a ban on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, X, and YouTube to save the young generation from their negative and devastating effects.

The X website has been largely offline since February 17, with occasional service restorations, mainly after former commissioner Rawalpindi Liaquat Ali Chatta made a statement in front of the media claiming that the “elections were rigged”.

On the other hand, a majority of users are using VPNs to access the platform. There are numerous posts mocking the authorities, even caretaker IT Minister Umar Saif for using a VPN, as his current location in recent tweets is showing as Hong Kong.

But so far, no authority has taken responsibility for restricting the services of X, which activists see as a dangerous trend.

“This way, those in power are telling that they can ban any platform without any reason or being answerable to anyone,” said Nighat Dad, a digital rights activist and member of the UN Secretary General’s advisory board on AI.

She added that such a blanket ban on any platform is a violation of fundamental rights, and those in power are not considering the reputation of the country worldwide, especially concerning those who are being invited to invest in Pakistan.

Rumours that even VPNs will be banned in the country have rung alarm bells in the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA).

P@SHA expressed its concern, claiming that such a proposal for a blanket ban on VPNs in the country would have detrimental consequences for Pakistan’s economy and its burgeoning reputation as a tech and innovation hub.

P@SHA said that a VPN ban would not only disrupt business operations but also stifle growth for companies and individuals heavily reliant on dynamic IPs for their work.

“The banking sector, in particular, faces severe financial repercussions due to restricted access to VPNs, hindering their ability to manage international transactions effectively,” a statement by P@SHA said, adding that such bottlenecks would obstructs the government’s vision of achieving the $15 billion exports target for the IT and IT services and also undermines the extensive endeavours of SIFC to facilitate the ease of doing business.

“Without losing reputational credibility, competitive advantage, and clientele, we advocate for the formation of a joint working group with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to ensure the uninterrupted operation of internet services while addressing regulatory concerns,” P@SHA said.

Currently, all commercial users are required to get their VPNs registered at PTA in two categories for companies and freelancers, while IP Whitelisting is required for call centres and for video conferences for organisations and companies.

Currently, more than 3,540 VPNs and 25,085 IP addresses have been registered with the PTA, but there is no bar on individuals using VPNs for non-commercial purposes.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2024

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