No excuse

HOW are senior government officials defending a nationwide internet outage citing `system installation issues` qualitatively any different from a student turning up to class empty-handed with the excuse that `the dog ate my homework`? Of course, both possibilities exist within the realm of things that can happen a particularly hungry canine may make a morsel out of a child`s homework, and `system installation` may cause a timely outage right when an unofficially sanctioned political party is holding an online event.

However, in the course of our ordinary lives, such excuses are not usually taken without a healthy measure of incredulity. It is hoped, therefore, that Information Minister Murtaza Solangi, DG PTA Ahmed Shamim Pirzada and FIA Cybercrime Director Ops Waqaruddin Syed will find it within themselves to quickly forgive those who have been doubting their sincerity.

For context, the three gentlemen had appeared before the media on Monday to explain that the most recent nationwide internet outage, which hit around the evening this past Saturday, had nothing to do with the online falsa that had been arranged by the PTI around the same time and everything to do with the PTA`s `software being upgraded`. These were Mr Pirzada`s own words as he rubbished a question asking why each of the last three nationwide outages Dec 17, Jan 7 and Jan 20 had coincided so neatly with the PTI`s pre-announced online events. There seemed to be few buyers for the DG PTA`s explanation, however, as tech rights advocates and digital experts continued to criticise the government for disrupting internet access for millions `on political grounds`. Perhaps the authorities would be better served if they provided more details of the hitherto unknown system uphaul and `software upgrade` they are undergoing.

On a more serious note, it was alarming that the government, in the same conference, reinforced fears that there may be further outages as elections draw nearer. Setting aside the debate about why outages are taking place, cutting the public off from internet services violates constitutional rights and is likely to be held so if challenged in the courts. A relevant precedent exists in the Islamabad High Court`s 2018 ruling on the suspension of mobile phone services. Further, in the context of the upcoming polls, it is important that voters have access to any information that helps them exercise their political rights.

Therefore, the matter must be looked into by the ECP too. There is also the impact on the digital economy: each disruption causes billions in losses to businesses and individuals who rely on internet connectivity for their work. Given the severity of these consequences, it is strange that the PTA did not wish to appear more proactive about tackling the problem. No wonder doubts remain about its true intent.

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