On May 17, at around 10:00 PM, Twitter users in Pakistan frantically started refreshing their apps and rebooting their internet routers as they tried to access the microblogging website. Where some thought that their app had crashed, others blamed their Internet service provider (ISP) for slow speed. Soon people didn’t realise that Twitter, in fact, was experiencing an outage in Pakistan.
Soon after, #TwitterDown started trending despite the platform being inaccessible as users accessed it through Virtual Private Networks (VPN). The Support department of StormFiber, a local ISP affiliated with CyberNet, told Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), that no order has been received from Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) or any other government entity to block Twitter on their network, and suspect it being a technical glitch instead of an attempt of censorship.
A preliminary test of OONI Probe suggests that the website was potentially blocked in the country. However, the reason for the outage that lasted for at least three hours, is not clear. Where concerned individuals and civil society representatives speculate it being blocked on account of government’s orders to stop a certain virtual conference from being viewed by people, ISPs and telcos maintain that they have not received any notice from the authorities to block Twitter services in Pakistan.
Media Matters for Democracy, in its Twitter thread, says, “This incident merits clarity on part of the authorities, and we demand transparency from PTA on whether inaccessibility of Twitter in Pakistan was by design and done on orders of the government.” It further adds, “It is imperative that the government of Pakistan uphold citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information, that are not only guaranteed under the Constitution, but are also essential for a democracy to succeed.”
The organisation calls upon the government to issue an official statement on the matter, clarifying whether Twitter was blocked, and if it was, on what grounds.
The world celebrates World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on May 17, initiated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This day particularly acknowledges the advancement of technology allowing borderless communication, and discusses a theme every year. The 2020 theme identified “ICT’s contribution to the advancement of the Information Society”.
However, Pakistanis were barred from accessing one of the largest social media networks, and one that empowers the citizens of Pakistan in voicing their concerns, and to reach out to the authorities as well.
Asad Baig, co-founder and Director of MMfD, says, “It’s too soon to suggest that this was done on the orders of the government. But if this was, they should’ve done it transparently instead of leaving citizens wondering what was happening to their connection.” He adds, “Clarity is needed on this from the government before we can be sure that the authorities blocked Twitter on Pakistani servers. Freedom of expression and access to information are fundamental rights of citizens of Pakistan, and they should be upheld unconditionally.”
The reason for the inaccessibility of Twitter in Pakistan remains unknown. The social media platform has also not responded to inquiries about the issue, and has not made any comments about users in the country being unable to access it.
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran