The first ever comprehensive report mapping Pakistan’s past, present and possible future online – “Pakistan’s Internet Landscape” – was launched today at Avari Towers, in Karachi. Jahanzaib Haque, Web Editor, The Express Tribune and author of the 28-page report presented the principle findings and recommendations highlighted in the research.
The report outlines Internet control mechanisms deployed by the government, and highlights existing legislation and its application in relation to the internet. It provides a historical perspective of Internet censorship in Pakistan and the move to criminalize legitimate expression online. It also outlines the state of internet surveillance, means deployed, and the purpose and impact of such monitoring.
Haque says “The state’s need to police the internet has led to numerous violations of fundamental rights, particularly access to information through large-scale blocking and filtering. However, citizens have turned to proxy servers and virtual private networks to circumvent blocks put in place, so Pakistanis still have access to a wide range of content, for now.”
The event was attended by leading media practitioners, journalists, human rights activists, civil society, researchers and major stakeholders in the online space.
The report’s was produced for Bytes For All, Pakistan (B4A), a human rights organization with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The organization regularly organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening human rights movements in Pakistan.
Emphasizing the significance of the report, Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director, Bytes for All, Pakistan, said ‘We felt the need for a comprehensive mapping of the Internet governance issues the nation is faced with, ranging from the legal framework to the technologies in use, the abuse of these technologies by the government, and impact on fundamental rights of the citizens. This study further pulls together and maps information on Internet processes and power centers to provide a baseline and a reference for citizens’ awareness of issues emerging vis-à-vis this technology vital to our lives, livelihoods, rights and freedoms.’
The report was earlier launched internationally in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2013, and was presented to UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank la Rue. The report is based on Mr le Rue’s work and recommendations.
PAKISTAN’S INTERNET LANDSCAPE – KEY FINDINGS:
- Internet penetration has seen growth to an estimated 10- 16% of the population, with the country boasting 15 million mobile internet users despite a lack of 3G technology.
- A large section of internet users, particularly in rural areas, still rely on poor quality dial-up connections, or EDGE mobile connectivity, that makes most online activities difficult. A switch to 3G or even 4G mobile networks could be harnessed to provide internet access to rural areas, not only to mobile phones, but desktops, laptops and tablets as well.
- Greater freedom and internet access for citizens has been met with increased state control, and systematic surveillance and censorship of the web. While blocking and filtering has been increasingly systematized in recent years, the process remains inconsistent and lacks transparency.
- The blasphemy laws pose the most direct challenge to the internet in Pakistan, as cases such as the Facebook ban and the YouTube ban have shown that the pillars of the state appear to be in agreement when it comes to blocking content deemed blasphemous, although the blasphemy laws are problematic, and do not address the internet specifically.
- Aside from blasphemy, blocking/filtering has largely focused on the crisis in Balochistan and information creating a perceived negative image of politicians or the military.
- Radical religious groups have rapidly expanded in the online space, operating with impunity and forming a dangerous bloc that threatens cyberspace on many levels.
- Most citizens have turned to proxy servers, virtual private networks and other tools to circumvent blocks. Through workarounds, Pakistanis still have access to a wide range of content.
- The authorities push to control cyberspace breaches constitutionally established fundamental rights of citizens, and will have a negative impact on future socio economic development.
- The disconnection of mobile services is a disturbing trend that could have far-reaching, negative implications, as mobile phones present the greatest potential for internet access in the country.
- The state has systematically worked to legitimize the invasion of citizens’ online privacy.
- While there is a great need for laws that deal with use of the internet in connection to illegal activities, the existing legislation and practices are flawed and open to misuse and human rights violations.
- Cyber-attacks have been a part of Pakistan’s online space since over a decade, and almost entirely in connection with neighboring India. Both hacktivism and attacks on online businesses pose a real threat that needs to be addressed, both legislatively and through action by the security apparatus or relevant agencies.