July 2, 2020

W. Tariq


With populist leaders and their online troll armies seeking to spread disinformation, and authorities cutting off access to online information, global internet freedom seems to be going downhill.

Like many other countries, even Pakistan – a country with 67 million broadband connections – continues blocking websites. But it is not just limited to explicit content; the list also includes social, cultural, and political web pages.

The only way that anyone can access these websites is through a Virtual Private Network or VPN, a proxy, or a buffer that allows access.

But in its typically officious way, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has asked its users to have their VPNs registered by June 30 or else action will be taken for “terminating illegal traffic which causes loss to the national exchequer.”

To know more about VPNs, their legal status and if the PTA move is justified, Voicepk.net interviewed Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com. Below are the excerpts of the interview.

First of all, how do VPNs work? How do they bypass blocking?

VPN services use encryption to generate a secure tunnel between your device (e.g.
smartphone or laptop) and a remote VPN server. Your data travels through this tunnel and is then forwarded onto your requested website or application.

Connecting to a VPN server in another country tricks websites into thinking you are visiting from that country. This means you can get around site blocks and censorship in your home country by connecting to a VPN server elsewhere in the world where that content is accessible.

Governments often crackdown on VPNs. Are they illegal?

VPNs are perfectly legal in most countries and are increasingly considered an essential privacy and anti-censorship tool. However, there are exceptions. VPNs are currently illegal to use in Belarus, Iraq, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.

VPN use is also restricted in China, Iran, Oman, Russia, and the UAE, among others.

Governments usually crackdown on VPNs because they do not want people to get around local site blocking or censorship.

Is there any data on the use of these networks? How many VPNs are there in the world and in Pakistan?

While it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact figure, we do know that at the beginning of 2020, 31 percent of internet users were using VPNs, which is over 1.4 billion people around the world. Since then, VPN demand has only increased due to coronavirus lockdown, even doubling in many countries.

We also know that over a billion mobile VPN apps have been downloaded since 2016, with
almost half of those installs coming in 2019.

Pakistani smartphone users downloaded over 10 million VPN apps in 2019 – 60 percent more than the year before, making Pakistan the 11th biggest mobile VPN market in the world.

The PTA has asked the public to get their VPNs registered else action will be taken. Is the directive justified?

The PTA is arguing that “the exercise is being undertaken to promote legal ICT services /business in Pakistan and safety of telecom users”. However, it seems more likely that the Pakistani government is pushing for VPN registration as a means of stifling free speech and access to information. After all, the country has a history of internet censorship. NetBlocks announced in May that Twitter, Zoom and
Periscope has all been throttled by the Pakistani government.

Given that VPNs are integral to internet safety and are a vital tool in maintaining digital privacy, it is unjustified to push for VPN registration. It appears nothing short of an attempt to crackdown on censorship circumvention tools and freedom of expression online.

If there are no VPNs, what other alternatives do the citizens have if governments continue to block websites?

If people in Pakistan are unable to use a VPN, another option is Tor. This is an internet privacy tool which, like a VPN, enables you to get around local site blocks and censorship by routing your connection through a server based in another country.

Another way of accessing blocked websites is via a proxy. Like a VPN, a proxy will also route your internet traffic through a remote server, enabling you to access content in other countries. However, most proxies do no encrypt your internet traffic so should be avoided if you wish to view sensitive data.

Like a poor-quality VPN, poor-quality proxies can also be dangerous, with some containing malware and malicious scripts.