The Internet is Pakistan’s new political battleground

The Internet is Pakistan's new political battleground

The Internet is Pakistan's new political battleground

In Pakistan, the internet has become a battleground. Instead of tanks and missiles, the fight is waged through restricted bandwidth and targeted shutdowns.

In less than two months of 2024, Pakistan’s 128 million internet users have faced repeated disruptions, leaving them in digital darkness. Multiple outages in January affected mobile networks and social media platforms, rendering Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram inaccessible on several occasions. The disconnection from X (formerly Twitter) has now lasted for over 72 hours, making it the longest disruption during this year’s election period, extending beyond the voting on February 8.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Pakistan has a history of internet disruptions, especially during times of political unrest. After the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2023, the country experienced a four-day blackout. Social media applications have been blocked on more than six occasions in the past year alone. Pakistan ranks third globally in imposing nationwide restrictions. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, the regulator for telecom and internet services, implements these measures without providing any warning or explanation, raising concerns. This raises serious doubts about the rule of law and Pakistan’s aspirations to grow its digital economy.

The consequences of such actions have widespread implications. Internet censorship not only infringes upon basic rights to freedom of expression and information access but also obstructs economic activities and disrupts vital services. As reported by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, a 24-hour internet service suspension results in a financial loss of 1.3 billion rupees ($15.6m), which is equivalent to a significant 0.57 percent of the nation’s average daily GDP. With Pakistan being the third largest hub for freelance workers globally, frequent interruptions can abruptly halt years of progress and instill doubt among foreign clients.

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In today’s interconnected society, digital access is no longer a luxury but a necessity, and any deliberate restrictions impede innovation and advancement. Particularly alarming are the repercussions of such disruptions for democracy itself. For example, it is deeply concerning that citizens participating in the country’s inaugural digital election were unable to verify their polling stations due to a lack of mobile connectivity.

Authoritarian regimes have increasingly resorted to internet shutdowns and restrictions as tools to suppress dissent. Over the past five years, at least 46 governments have enforced limitations on social media and messaging apps. The Global Network Initiative has consistently opposed such deliberate constraints, which typically violate the principles of proportionality and necessity. Ironically, historical evidence indicates that disruptions often fail to achieve their intended goals as individuals tend to find alternative ways to access applications through less secure means when faced with restrictions. According to 10VPN, the demand for VPN services in Pakistan more than doubled on February 18 compared to the daily average of the preceding 28 days as X encountered restrictions in the country.

Growing online outrage among Pakistanis has played a significant role in fueling consecutive waves of protest against perceived election rigging. These protests have culminated in countrywide demonstrations that challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process. While the telecom authority labeled the recent outage as a “technical glitch,” international partners have raised suspicions due to coinciding social media embargoes during these protests. They view it as a concerning step towards digital authoritarianism.

The absence of a precise and transparent legal basis for imposing restrictions has resulted in the systematic erosion of democratic principles. This situation puts the country on a dangerous path, jeopardizing both fundamental rights and economic progress.

The future of democracy is no longer solely determined through the ballot box. The dynamic synergy of the internet and social media empowers democracies, fostering participatory governance in an unprecedented era of connectivity. They allow citizens to directly connect with their representatives, hold them accountable, and exercise their fundamental human rights within a democratic society.

As Pakistan undergoes a leadership transition, it must contemplate how to move beyond its current approach of taking one step forward and two steps back. It needs to convince the world and its citizens that it can foster a peaceful, stable internet, economy, and democracy.

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