In the midst of political turmoil, Pakistan has recently witnessed a severe disruption to its daily life as citizens grapple with a prolonged internet shutdown after the arrest of former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf leader Imran Khan on May 9, 2023. For four consecutive days, internet services were abruptly suspended, causing significant inconvenience and hindering the flow of information and communication within the country.
The ban not only impacted popular online platforms such as Foodpanda, Uber, and Careem, but also partially restricted access to social media giants like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. It also impacted individual or corporate users who incurred heavy losses due to the disruption in internet services. As Pakistanis eagerly awaited the restoration of internet services, unconfirmed reports circulated on social media, providing conflicting information about the resumption.
A skeptical Twitter user shared on May 15:
Internet and social media services are back in Pakistan, but for how long? 🤔
Let's hope the government doesn't pull the plug again, or we'll all be left in the dark on 23 May when the Supreme Court hears the case on the election delay.
— Foxtrot Sierra 🇵🇰 (@FS801209) May 15, 2023
Earlier Michael Kugelman, Director of South-Asia Institute at The Wilson Centre, shared a similar message on social media, saying the internet is fully restored 13 the blanket ban was lifted on May.
Much of the criticism from political leaders in the West (including in US) re the crackdown in Pakistan this week has focused on the long Internet shutdown. Sounds like the Internet ban is finally in the process of being lifted.
Small silver lining from what's been a dark week.
— Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman) May 12, 2023
However, the unannounced internet shutdown continued. Journalist Shah Meer Baloch reported an incident where Imran Khan was giving an interview to Fareed Zakariya and went offline as the internet was turned off.
Gloves are off & Imran Khan has accused army chief harbouring a “person grudge” to call his arrest & a crackdown on his party.Khan said “the army & ISI r above law.” Been told Khan’s interview with @FareedZakaria was stopped & shut off his internet https://t.co/bCIB40i6fd
— Shah Meer Baloch (@ShahmeerAlbalos) May 15, 2023
Citizens voice frustration and uncertainty
The shutdown of social media sites in Pakistan has triggered frustration and anger among citizens who rely on these media for communication and business dealings. The interruption the ban caused has highlighted the value of online connectivity as well as freedom of expression. Online platforms such as social media have become crucial tools for citizens to voice their opinions, hold authorities accountable, and participate in public discourse. The restriction not only limits the citizens’ ability to express themselves but also creates an information vacuum, leaving them unaware of developments and updates.
A local user tweeted:
Please fix the internet of Pakistan so, I can do my work with peace all of us using social media not for politics or doing fun. Most of us have a job if the government can understand the need of citizens kindly please fix the internet. #Pakistan #InternetShutDown #Pakistani pic.twitter.com/yGhaMC1Pdk
— Waqas Masood (@iblees_ceen) May 14, 2023
Hija Kamran, a well-known digital rights defender expressed her concerns the day Khan was arrested and the internet was blocked, emphasizing the violation of fundamental rights caused by the shutdown:
Disrupting internet services in times of political instability is only a sign of a scared & lost authority. Access to information and freedom of expression are every person's fundamental rights, & #InternetShutdowns (complete or partial) are violation of those rights. #KeepItOn
— Hija Kamran (@hijakamran) May 9, 2023
Constraints on freedom of expression
Various newsrooms and media houses reported on the internet blockade, highlighting the significant impact on freedom of expression and access to information. The restrictions have drawn criticism from human rights organizations, journalists, domestic and international communities, and concerned individuals worldwide.
#Pakistan: @Volker_Turk urges restraint by security forces. Internet restrictions must be lifted. Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly & rule of law are key to resolving political conflicts – with no place for disproportionate force. Protesters should refrain from violence. pic.twitter.com/oXHPMPQvQg
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) May 11, 2023
Freedom of expression and access to information are fundamental rights that should be upheld in any democratic society. The internet shutdown not only curtails these rights but also hampers the country's progress and development.
🇵🇰 GNI is troubled by disruptions to internet services & social media platforms ordered by PTA in #Pakistan, following former PM Imran Khan's arrest & subsequent protests. Such disruptions pose significant risks for individuals’ safety, access to accurate info & undermine FoE.
— Global Network Initiative (@theGNI) May 9, 2023
A community-based news initiative Pak Votes shared:
Netizens are facing difficulty in connecting on @twitter & @facebook in Pakistan. Some users are also reporting throttling on @WhatsApp too#Keepiton |@accessnow |@elonmusk pic.twitter.com/rhQ2GmB4wb
— PakVoices (@pakvoices) May 9, 2023
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, such disruptions have far-reaching implications for both citizens and the international community.
It maybe internet throttling or blockage of internet. According to @OpenObservatory, users are facing difficulty in using @telegram & @signalapp in all major cities while netizens in Karachi are also facing difficulty in using @messenger #Keepiton #Pakistan #ImranKhan pic.twitter.com/4GoMeMVfhR
— PakVoices (@pakvoices) May 9, 2023
The rise of VPN use in Pakistan
In response to the blocking of social media platforms in Pakistan, citizens have increased their use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which have become a popular tool for avoiding government-imposed limitations and accessing restricted information, allowing people to keep their online connections and exercise their freedom of expression.
As the country is dealing with the surge in VPN use, the emphasis should be on the importance of a comprehensive approach to internet legislation, which is critical to finding the right balance between national security concerns and citizens’ right to have free access to information and expression online.
Hoxx VPN, a proxy service working worldwide for unrestricted access to information, announced its free premium VPN services for all Pakistanis following the situation in Pakistan after the arrest of Imran Khan, and tweeted:
All our clients from Pakistan are upgraded to Premium without any charge. Everyone joining from Pakistan will also be upgraded and enjoy free VPN until 5/20/23. Enjoy Pakistan… Notify all your family members and friends. #ImranKhan #PakistanCivilWar
— Hoxx VPN (@HOXXcom) May 10, 2023
Media Matters for Democracy, an organization that works on digital media literacy and internet regulation in Pakistan to educate people on how they can safeguard their online presence, tweeted:
🔒 Safeguard your online presence during internet shutdowns with a secure VPN! pic.twitter.com/helkxOs043
— Media Matters for Democracy (@mmfd_Pak) May 15, 2023
A looming economic crisis for e-commerce
The internet shutdown in Pakistan has significantly affected businesses throughout the country. Online platforms like Foodpanda, Uber, and Careem have become inaccessible, disrupting food delivery services and ride-hailing operations. This blockage had severe repercussions for academia, researchers, and professionals as well.
E-commerce platforms have also suffered, experiencing a decline in sales due to the inability to conduct transactions. Supply chains, logistics, and communication channels have been disrupted, hampering productivity and decision-making processes. The absence of social media platforms has limited businesses’ marketing and customer engagement efforts. Small and medium-sized enterprises, crucial for Pakistan's economy, have been hit hard, facing financial losses and challenges in adapting to the sudden disruption.
More than 300,000 people in Pakistan will lose their today’s daily wage, because their job is totally dependent on internet. Includes, freelancers, uber drivers, delivery people, bykea and a lot more. These are the people, who’s families are dependent on this daily wage.
— Ihtisham Ul Haq (@iihtishamm) May 15, 2023
The internet blockade imposed in Pakistan amidst the arrest of Imran Khan raises serious concerns about the state of democracy, freedom of expression, and access to information in the country. It highlights the need for a transparent and inclusive internet governance framework that respects citizens’ rights and ensures uninterrupted access to the digital world.