October 21, 2020

Stuck On Buffering: Pakistan Shows No Gains In Internet Freedom

The Freedom on the Net 2020 report has once again declared Pakistan “Not Free” in terms of Internet freedom, with the country failing to improve its score from 2019.

The annual report, launched by the international freedom watchdog Freedom House on Wednesday, measures the level of internet freedom in 65 countries around the world. The report uses indicators related to Internet access, content restrictions, and user rights to assign scores for each country on a scale from 100 (most free) to 0 (least free).

Pakistan received a dismal score of 26 out of 100 — the same as 2019 — to fall among the worst 10 countries in the global ranking. Internet freedom in Pakistan is at par with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to the report, and only slightly better than Cuba, Syria, Vietnam, Iran, and China.

“The online environment in Pakistan is tightly controlled by the government,” the Pakistan section of the report stated. “Internet shutdowns, blocked websites, and arrests for activity online remain authorities’ preferred tactics in their effort to suppress unwanted speech.”

Threats to Online Freedom in Pakistan

The report, which covered the period from June 2019 to May 2020, noted that the Pakistan government made several policy and legal moves recently to exert control over online content.

It stated that if the Pakistan government’s controversial Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules were passed, it “would undermine encryption, give authorities more access to personal data, and enhance the government’s ability to block or remove online content.” News reports suggest that the government has now silently replaced the rules with a new but similar version, whose enforcement might lead to the same risks to digital rights as indicated by the Freedom on the Net report.

The report noted that frequent Internet shutdowns continued in Pakistan, including city-based localised suspensions during an opposition political party’s rally and sit-in in October 2019. It also echoed the concerns of digital rights advocates about the lack of transparency by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in applying content restrictions under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

Pakistan is third from bottom among the Asia-Pacific countries in the Freedom on the Net 2020 rankings.

Pakistani Internet users remained vulnerable to threats, intimidation, and criminal prosecutions for their online activity during 2019-20. The report cited convictions on blasphemy charges based on social media posts and cases registered against journalists under PECA for their online expression as examples. At least one social media activist was stabbed fatally in June 2019, according to the Freedom on the Net report. Coordinated and inauthentic behaviour to manipulate online conversations also increased in Pakistan during the past year, the report stated, citing the #ArrestAntiPakJournalists Twitter trend.

The Freedom on the Net report quoted Media Matters for Democracy’s research study Hostile Bytes to indicate that Internet users, including journalists and commentators, are forced to self-censor their online expression due to threats and abuse. The research had found that eight out of every 10 Pakistani women journalists who participated in the study self-censored to counter online violence.

The report also shed light on the online misogyny, gendered surveillance, and the gender digital divide in the country by documenting instances of online death and rape threats hurled at organisers of the Aurat March, the use of CCTV camera footage to blackmail women students at the University of Balochistan, and the control of women’s access to digital devices.

Pakistan still does not have data protection or privacy laws, and the country also lacks any policy regarding net neutrality, the report stated.

Covid-19 intensified Digital Divide and Surveillance

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the effects of lack of Internet access in Pakistan, as “people with limited internet access were less able to get information about the virus or obtain other services online”, according to the report.

Restrictions on the Internet in regions such as the erstwhile former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have continued for long, but during the pandemic these shutdowns affected the ability of residents to access virtual learning opportunities and medical services.

“The chief justice of the (Islamabad) High Court ordered the PTA in April 2020 to restore 3G and 4G access in the (ex-FATA) region,” the report stated, after a student petitioned the court. But the ruling had not been implemented up until May 2020, according to the report.

The report also raised privacy and surveillance concerns about the technology measures deployed by the Pakistani government to fight Covid-19, including a secretive “track-and-trace” system previously used to hunt terrorists and the use of geo-location in the government’s contact-tracing smartphone application.

‘Cautious Improvements’

The report mentioned that strategic litigation in Pakistan led to a victory against arbitrary website blocking.

The left-wing Awami Workers Party had petitioned the Islamabad High Court after the PTA blocked and later restored its website without providing any notice or explanation.

“After the party petitioned, the Islamabad High Court…ruled against the PTA in September 2019, saying it may only block websites if affected parties are permitted to lodge objections and if other principles of due process are respected,” the report stated.

The Freedom on the Net report quoted the Pakistan example to encourage civil society organisations worldwide to use strategic litigation for pushing back against online censorship.

“(Civil society organisations) should participate in strategic litigation whenever possible, or provide friend-of-the-court filings that explain how certain forms or uses of digital technology undermine human rights,” the report recommended.

Global Trends

The 2020 report highlighted the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Internet freedom around the world.

“The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom,” report authors Adrian Shahbaz and Allie Funk wrote. “For the 10th consecutive year, users have experienced an overall deterioration in their rights, and the phenomenon is contributing to a broader crisis for democracy worldwide.”

The report documented three trends regarding the decline in Internet freedom.

“First, political leaders used the pandemic as a pretext to limit access to information,” it stated. “Second, authorities cited Covid-19 to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive.”

Governments have also increased the efforts to impose their “cyber sovereignty” on the global Internet, according to the report.

“The third trend has been the transformation of a slow-motion ‘splintering’ of the internet into an all-out race toward ‘cyber sovereignty,’ with each government imposing its own internet regulations in a manner that restricts the flow of information across national borders,”  the report stated.

Written by

Waqas Naeem is a program manager at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor website.

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