Internet blackout – 12 May 2023

FOLLOWING former PM Imran Khan’s arrest on Tuesday, the state responded to real and perceived security threats emanating from the digital domain the only way it knows how — by shutting down the internet. Nearly 48 hours after the incident, most mobile data services remained suspended, while fixed-line internet was also spotty.

Major apps such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were also disrupted. The state’s rationale behind the digital blockade was apparently to quell violence as supporters of the PTI went on the rampage. Yet, this heavy-handed approach at policing cyberspace has deprived millions of citizens of their right to freely communicate, as well as the right to make a living.

Over 100 leaders from the country’s fledgling startup and ecommerce business community have rightly highlighted in a statement that blocking and filtering the internet amounts to limiting the “rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression”, while pointing out that “tens of millions of Pakistanis rely on internet-dependent services to connect … and to undertake essential business activities”.

Indeed, a large segment of the population that depends on cellular data — from food delivery riders and drivers working for ride-hailing services, to digital creators — have all had their livelihoods affected by the blockade. Banking transactions have also been disrupted, while cellular firms claim they have lost hundreds of millions of rupees in revenue due to the shutdown.

Is this what the state means when its functionaries talk of creating a thriving digital economy? Furthermore, countless people who do not have fixed-line broadband or landline connections have had their communication links severed. As the HRCP noted, internet blockades allow “dangerous rumours to circulate and compromise people’s access to information”.

The state needs to lift this blockade immediately. While there may be genuine concerns about violent elements using the digital realm to spread havoc, there should be more intelligent options than to shut down the internet.

The authorities can, by working with platforms, isolate individual accounts involved in promoting violence. But in the future, wholesale blockades of the internet must be ruled out.

As business leaders and civil society activists have pointed out, access to the internet needs to be recognised as a fundamental right. If the state continues to use these clumsy methods at policing cyberspace, it will only make a mockery out of claims that Pakistan is ready for the information and digital commerce revolution.

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