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How Pakistan's Internet Ban Causes Information Blackout, Economic Loss and International Dissent

Islamabad top view - Sputnik India, 1920, 17.05.2023
Pakistan's recent internet shutdown due to political turmoil caused great economic costs, affecting millions of citizens who have come to rely on the connection for everything from earning a living to paying bills to buying groceries.
It is widely accepted today that access to the internet should be considered a basic human right and not a luxury.
Since the dawn of digital technology, organizations such as the United Nations and the Internet Society have conducted many surveys, polls and research papers specifying that the internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom and expression.
In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a non-binding resolution condemning any intentional disruption of internet access by governments. The resolution reaffirmed that "the same rights people have offline must also be protected online."
Since then, several countries have adopted laws that require the state to work to ensure that internet access is broadly available and prevent the state from unreasonably restricting an individual's access to information.

Pakistan Government Restricted Internet Access

Following the arrest of opposition party PTI's chief and former prime minister Imran Khan last Tuesday, Pakistan's Interior Ministry restricted broadband internet for millions of people for five days after violent nationwide protests erupted over the issue.
Despite the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) announcing that mobile broadband services nationwide were later restored, many Pakistanis still cannot access Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The government explained the reason for the ban, citing concerns over the spread of misinformation and its potential impact on public order and safety.
A police officer fires tear gas to disperse supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan protesting against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. - Sputnik India, 1920, 16.05.2023
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However, this ban did not go down well either domestically or internationally. The Global System for Mobile Communication (GSMA) expressed concern and urged the Pakistani government to proceed with the measures with caution. It also urged Islamabad to limit shutdowns to only unavoidable circumstances, in accordance with relevant laws, most notably the International Human Rights Convention and the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) Constitution.
Despite the eventual lift on the ban by the government, Sputnik has received confirmation from civilians in Lahore and Islamabad that as of Monday, the speed of the internet remained slow and social media sites were still not working properly, which was forcing some people to access them using VPN (proxy) services.
This suspension of the internet in Pakistan is the longest such continuous shutdown in a country that often suspends communications as a tool to curb unrest. As Pakistan is facing an economic crisis, banning the internet for days had a further detrimental effect on the economy, while netizens complained that this is an attack on their constitutional and human right.

Disruption of Online Services

Estimates suggest a revenue loss of Rs. 820 million ($3m) for telecom operators during the blackout, while the government has lost around Rs. 287 million ($1m) in tax revenue following the internet ban.
The numerous digital companies, such as the Careem taxi app, FoodPanda and Cheetay delivery services, online pharmacies and many similar companies that rely on broadband internet to provide timely services to the people also faced a big setback. However, the worst effect of such a suspension was for millions of Pakistanis who have online jobs and freelancing projects on social media apps.

"I work as a graphics designer at a multinational advertising agency from home. The past week was so stressful for me, not just because of the political chaos in my country, but also because I was not able to do my work. I had two very important projects for my clients which I could not deliver because there was limited internet connectivity and social media platforms were blocked. Honestly, I don't understand how banning the platforms solves any problem. I have not been able to work properly for days, but who will compensate us for the money our company is losing?” Mehvish from Lahore told Sputnik.

Mehvish, who requested to be quoted using first name only, added that she does not particularly care about any specific political leader as long as peace and order is restored in her country. "I think that many common people like myself just want to live in peace and earn a decent salary without all this political chaos."

A more political citizen from Islamabad, on condition of anonymity, said that social media is still barred, but all the TV channels are working which makes him feel that the narrative is being controlled by the government. “I don’t watch much TV, as I consume information from Twitter and YouTube. Many of my favorite Pakistani journalists and political analysts such as Siddique Jaan, Dr. Moeed Pirzada, Haider Mehdi and others have millions of subscribers on their YouTube pages where they share uncensored points of views and analysis. Sadly all that legit information is inaccessible at this moment. It makes me wonder what the government is trying to control?”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International also expressed concern over the security situation in Pakistan. In a Twitter post, the human rights non-profit condemned the suspension of mobile internet service and the blockage of social media applications.

It said the suspension “restricts people’s access to information and freedom of expression."

Telecom companies across Pakistan also slammed the government for suspending mobile internet services.
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Pakistan's biggest telecom Jazz also suffered from the suspension. Jazz CEO Aamir Ibrahim made a statement on Twitter a few days ago: "Shutting down the internet was not a solution to anything. It creates more problems than it solves. For almost 24 hours, 125 million Pakistanis have been without mobile internet — a critical tool in emergencies and productivity."

Economic Loss Due to the Internet Ban

A report shared by 1LINK Limited, which is a consortium of major banks that own and operate the largest representative interbank network in Pakistan, showed international payment card transactions were down last Wednesday by 45%. From a daily average of 127,000 transactions during the week of May 1 to 7, the number reached approximately 68,000 on May 10.
A member of media takes photos of the burning building of the Radio Pakistan that was set on fire by angry supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan protesting against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. - Sputnik India, 1920, 16.05.2023
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Also, the daily value of transactions using international payment cards was down 46%, from Rs606 million ($2.14m) to Rs330m ($1.17m) on May 10. Point-of-sale (POS) transactions routed through main digital payment systems likewise fell by around 50% since the internet was shut down.
1LINK is Pakistan’s major facilitator of POS digital payment transactions for international platforms such as Visa and Mastercard.
Meanwhile, transactions on Pakistan’s only domestic payment scheme, PayPak, were down 52% in volume to 18,000 transactions on Wednesday, and 56% down in value to roughly Rs62m ($220,000)
Although cash transactions are still dominant in the country’s commercial dealing, digital payments have witnessed fast-paced growth in recent times.
The internet disruptions had a negative impact on Pakistani startups as well, which attracted more than $700 million in investment during 2022 and 2023. These startups were playing a critical role in promoting entrepreneurship, job creation, and digitization across the economy. They were also attracting foreign investments into the cash-strapped country.
This ban also came at a time when Pakistan's inflation is running at over 36% and an expected IMF bailout has been delayed by months.
Following the government's ban on the internet, more than 100 members of the business community and civil society released a statement saying, "We are deeply troubled by and condemn the recently reported and ongoing use of partial and complete internet shutdowns, as well as targeted content and app blocking, following the nationwide protests."
They said such shutdowns and blocking or filtering of internet services “unjustifiably limit the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression."