Internet: Pakistan’s new political battleground

Internet disruptions, unexplained by authorities, are casting serious doubts over the rule of law and Pakistan’s ambition to expand its digital economy.

An X app on a phone with the Twitter bird logo behind
Social media platform X, formerly Twitter, remains inaccessible to users in Pakistan since the weekend as internet watchdogs report outages [AFP]

In Pakistan, the internet has become a battleground. Not one fought with tanks and missiles but with throttled bandwidth and targeted shutdowns.

Less than two months into 2024, Pakistan’s 128 million internet users have repeatedly been plunged into digital darkness, facing disruptions to mobile networks and social media platforms. In at least three instances in January, social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram have been out of reach. Now, many users have been disconnected from X (formerly Twitter) for more than 72 hours, marking the longest such disruption witnessed during this year’s election period and continuing past the voting on February 8.

This is not without precedent. Pakistan has a long history of internet disruptions, particularly during periods of political turmoil. The country witnessed a four-day blackout after the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2023, and access to social media applications have allegedly been blocked on more than six occasions over the past year alone. Pakistan ranks third in the world for imposing nationwide restrictions. Alarmingly, each measure was carried out with nary a whisper of warning or explanation from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, the telecom and internet regulator, casting serious doubts over the rule of law and Pakistan’s ambition to expand its digital economy.

The ramifications of such actions are far-reaching. Internet censorship not only violates fundamental rights to freedom of expression and access to information but also hinders economic activity and disrupts essential services. According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, a 24-hour suspension of internet services leads to a financial setback of 1.3 billion rupees ($15.6m), equivalent to a remarkable 0.57 percent of the nation’s average daily gross domestic product. Being the third largest base of freelance workers in the world, frequent disruptions can bring to a screeching halt years of progress and plunge foreign clients into a sea of doubt. In today’s interconnected world, digital access is no longer a luxury but a necessity, and its deliberate curtailment stifles innovation and progress. Perhaps most concerning are the impacts of such disruptions on democracy itself. For instance, it is deeply troubling that citizens voting in the country’s first digital election were unable to confirm their polling stations due to a lack of mobile connectivity.

Authoritarian governments have increasingly sought to use internet disruptions and blockades as weapons to crush dissent. Over the past five years, at least 46 governments have imposed social media and messaging app restrictions. The Global Network Initiative has consistently pushed against such intentional restrictions, which almost always violate the principles of proportionality and necessity. Ironically, precedent has shown that disruptions usually don’t achieve their purposes as people often find ways to access applications through less secure channels when faced with restrictions. According to Top10VPN, demand for VPN services in Pakistan more than doubled on February 18 compared with the daily average over the 28 days prior as X began to face restrictions in the country.

Among Pakistanis, growing online outrage has helped fuel successive waves of protest against perceived election rigging, culminating in countrywide demonstrations challenging the legitimacy of the process. While the telecom authority referred to the recent outage as a “technical glitch”, seemingly targeted social media embargoes coinciding with these protests fuel suspicion among international partners who see it as a worrying step towards digital authoritarianism.

In the absence of a precise and transparent legal basis for restrictions, the systematic erosion of democratic principles leaves the country treading a dangerous path backwards for both fundamental rights and economic progress.

Democracy’s future is no longer only decided at the ballot box. From crowdsourcing solutions to exposing corruption, the internet and social media have become powerful tools for advancing participatory governance in democracies. They enable citizens to connect directly with their representatives, hold them accountable and enable the enjoyment of fundamental human rights in a democratic society.

As Pakistan faces a transition in leadership, it must consider how it can move beyond this one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach and persuade the world and its citizens that it can foster a peaceful, stable internet, economy and democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.