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As Pakistan grapples with the possibility of regular climate-induced disasters, internet shutdowns that are imposed for various reasons, look set to compound future crises.
By Nighat Dad and Shmyla Khan, Digital Rights Foundation
On August 21, Pakistanis turned to YouTube as they usually do, but that Sunday evening many found that they were unable to access the platform. Pakistanis are no strangers to internet shutdowns, either for a singular application or extending to entire networks, and the temporary shutdown of YouTube on some networks was widely believed to be a hamfisted attempt to censor livestreaming of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech.
At the same time, as the country grappled with the largest flooding in living memory, national internet shutdowns were experienced as communications infrastructure broke down, and flooded areas were completely cut off from communication networks.
In a country where mobile networks are frequently shut down preemptively on public holidays such as Muharram or in response to mass protests, shutdowns might not feel cataclysmic, however they result in real economic and social costs.
Internet shutdowns cost Pakistan an estimated $69 million annually, The Brookings Institute estimated in 2016. This figure is bound to have risen, with increased dependency on internet infrastructure and connectivity in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also does not capture the fact that these losses are not experienced uniformly.
In Pakistan, a sudden internet shutdown in response to a protest in urban areas would be accompanied by closure of major routes and public transport; women express a heightened sense of vulnerability, particularly in spaces without network access.
Many shutdowns in the country have been localised or time-bound, however in some areas the denial of connectivity is long-term. In the summer of 2016, the formerly Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) was plunged into a communication blackout, as mobile internet shut down on the basis of a vague security threat. The indefinite shutdown stretched into years till internet access was restored at a piecemeal pace across the region, and shutdowns have been reinstated at the slightest inkling of a security threat.
Internet shutdowns silence people by denying them access to information, online expression and the ability to mobilise. Shutdowns have been employed to disrupt protests and gatherings such as political rallies and protests, blocking mobile signals in those areas.
Over time, cases have been filed at various courts, the most significant being at the Islamabad High Court in 2018 where the court found internet shutdowns authorised under the Pakistan Telecommunications Act of 1996 to be unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court struck down the decision, giving legal cover to arbitrary and non-transparent network and internet shutdowns.
Among territories which have historically been marginalised, such as Balochistan, sporadic, long-term and indefinite internet shutdowns are common on similar generalised security grounds. This has meant that people from these areas are unable to participate in the digital economy, service delivery mechanisms or seek jobs and educational opportunities online.
It is no surprise that students are at the forefront of raising these issues, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when the entire education system was shifted online without regard to students from areas such as former-FATA, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan.
While there is increased understanding regarding the marginalisation created through internet shutdowns, they remain a blunt instrument employed by the state with little transparency and accountability. The state rarely issues official notices regarding shutdowns, nor provides specific reasons for them.
For instance, last year internet connections were disconnected during the annual Asma Jahangir Conference during former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech. The state denied there was a shutdown, making accountability nearly impossible. This lack of transparency leads to the proliferation of disinformation, as technical network disruptions are often perceived as deliberate internet shutdowns by the state.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had made plans to centralise its DNS systems, so the power to shut down the internet is bound to become more sophisticated and arbitrary.
As the country grapples with the possibility of regular climate-induced disasters and an upcoming general election fraught with deep political fissures, it is worth asking whether we are comfortable with the prospect of internet shutdowns compounding future crises.
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