September 23rd, 2021
Pakistan is among top 10 countries with the most restrictions on internet freedom, according to an annual report on internet freedom across the world.
According to the annual Freedom on the Net report 2021, released by Freedom House, Pakistan’s score on internet freedom declined one point to 25 this year. Pakistan joined China, Iran, Myanmar, Cuba, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethopia on the listing of 10 bottom countries on internet freedom.
“Internet freedom remained constricted in Pakistan as the government continued to tightly control the online environment,” the report’s overview on Pakistan said. The report assesses the level of internet freedom in 70 countries from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021.
Digital rights activists attribute the decline in internet freedom in Pakistan because of the incessant policy of blocking social media platforms. TikTok has been blocked four times and remains blocked currently, said Usama Khilji, Executive Director of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy group.
“This is a short-sighted policy by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) that is costing Pakistan in terms of ease of doing business as well as impacting livelihood and speech rights of Pakistanis that seek to accrue benefits of the digital world,” Khilji told Voicepk.net.
The report said authorities in Pakistan routinely use internet shutdowns, platform blocking, and arrests and harsh convictions to suppress unwanted online speech.
“The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules 2020 were introduced during the coverage period and, if passed, would expand authorities’ ability to censor online content; allow the government to compel social media companies to moderate content; impose onerous registration requirements on social media companies; and enable authorities to gain access to encrypted data,” it said.
The report also noted that online activists and journalists are increasingly subjected to harassment, including some cases of physical assaults and enforced disappearances.
According to the report, internet penetration in Pakistan increased at a steady rate over the reporting period. As of June 2021, 103 million people subscribed to broadband internet, a 25 million increase from December 2019, and 46.9 percent of the population had access to broadband internet. The number of individual subscribers increased by 25 million between December 2019 and June 2021.
“While the cost of internet has fallen considerably in the last few years,15 access remains out of reach for the majority of the population, and high taxes on internet service push prices higher,” the report said.
Authorities frequently disrupt telecommunication services during protests,46 elections,47 and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns.
Internet freedom advocates and human rights groups have expressed concerns about Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s lack of transparency and independence as well as its broad powers over online content and licensing of service providers, the report said.
The report noted that authorities frequently block content that is critical of Islam or the military, content that is deemed a threat to national security, sites that host pornography or nudity, and sites related to or offering circumvention and privacy tools, among other political and social content.
The PTA reported in January 2021 that 980,000 URLs containing hate speech or controversial and objectionable content were blocked. Out of them 865,187 links were pornographic websites, 16,000 links contained hateful material against defense forces and national security, and 22,000 links had content related to sectarianism.
Freedom on the Net report 2021 said the PTA blocked social media platforms until company leadership agreed to moderate content deemed obscene or immoral during the period.
It said the Pakistani government also allegedly has access to censorship equipment. “Pakistan is one of several countries reported to have purchased website blocking and filtering equipment from Sandvine, a Canadian-based network equipment company.” This equipment enables the government to filter news, social media websites, and messaging apps.
The PTA actively issued notices and warnings to platforms such as YouTube and Twitter to take down124 content and accounts allegedly spreading false information. Social media companies seemed more willing to engage with the government on content moderation, the report said.
The report said most journalists, users and online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, the military, separatist movements, women’s rights, and the rights of marginalized communities.
In March 2021, a UN human rights panel raised concerns that the government was stifling journalism in Pakistan by filing false charges against online journalists and human rights defenders, the report said.
According to the report, coordinated and inauthentic accounts are manipulating online content and spreading disinformation in Pakistan. Online journalists and activists, especially those scrutinizing the military or intelligence agencies, have also testified to the existence of state-sponsored “troll armies” being employed to silence dissent.
Government surveillance is a serious concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives, as well as ordinary internet users, the report said. The cybercrime law (PECA) grants broad surveillance powers both to agencies within Pakistan and potentially to foreign governments, since it includes provisions that permit the sharing of data with international agencies without adequate oversight.
The report also found Pakistan among 24 countries which have initiated measures governing how platforms treat content, and among 38 nations where the authorities pursued reforms affecting companies’ management of data. The findings suggested that not in Pakistan alone, the internet freedom faced a serious challenge around the globe.