Broadband off – 12 May 2023

Since Tuesday, Pakistan has effectively been living without 4G services. Reportedly, the interior ministry had instructed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block mobile broadband services in the country hours after former prime minister Imran Khan’s arrest. By 8pm on Tuesday, 4G network on mobile phones disappeared, leaving people without connectivity. How can this be seen as anything but a way to deprive millions of people of their right to information? Such ‘temporary’ shutdowns of internet services in the country have been quite common, without considering the fact that such arbitrary decisions may bring life to a standstill. At a time when citizens needed internet access the most – to make well-informed decisions regarding their commute, etc – mobile 4G services were suspended. Not only that, access to social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook was also restricted.

Whatever the reason behind these measures may be, suspending internet services in this day and age is ridiculous. Even during times of chaos and unrest, connectivity is essential as the fear of the unknown creates more panic among people. Besides this, thousands of people in the country work remotely, and an unstable internet connection causes a lot of disruptions in their work. Internet-dependent food and ride hailing services also suffer a lot, and their operations pause abruptly, leaving most people without a day’s earning. According to recent reports, the PTA had announced a day back that mobile broadband services had been blocked ‘indefinitely’. If the objective is to block social media access, this decision reveals the government’s lack of understanding of the internet landscape. There are different ways available for social media users to access blocked sites from the comfort of their homes, and the government – in fact governments all over the world – cannot stop users from exploiting the loopholes and wiggling their way out.

In the absence of reliable data, it is impossible to verify the extent of economic losses caused by the mindless suspension of such services. But given how the internet is deeply integrated in people’s lives, any disruptions may result in significant losses. Such bans also prevent foreign investors from bringing investment to Pakistan. Protests around the country were a given, and it was – and still is – on law-enforcement agencies and the PTI to ensure that protesters remain peaceful. Pakistan’s political history is riddled with similar instances. In this game of power and rule by fear, party leaders have seldom gone to jail. And all of this has been followed by groups of angry and frustrated workers on the streets. But this does not give the government a pass to take decisions that end up being more harmful for the country.

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