May 13, 2023

By Hamza Saeed


While mobile data services seem to have been restored across Pakistan, users report that access to social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook remains suspended.
Users continue to bypass these restrictions with virtual private networks (VPNs), while sporadic reports have emerged of extremely slow speeds and sporadic downtimes.

Internet services and social media access were suspended on May 9 as riots erupted across the country following the arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman and former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan. According to statements to local and international news outlets by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) spokespersons on May 11, the Authority had received orders from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to suspend 4G services and restrict access to social media platforms, and that the suspension had been extended for an indefinite period of time.

According to the PTA, the suspension had been ordered in order to curb the spread of misinformation and incendiary content online. However, human rights groups expressed grave concern over the measure, stating that not only did it impinge upon the basic right to information and freedom of expression but also denies ordinary people access to lifesaving information, interfered with access to healthcare, and restricted the ability of journalists to upload photos and videos documenting government overreach and abuse.

Analysts, however, observed that rather than quell protests, the move seems to have bolstered PTI’s momentum, with workers utilizing VPNs to issue calls for protests and uploading videos of clashes with law enforcement agencies (LEAs) in various parts of the country. Similarly, journalists and citizens also used these same workarounds to report on developments on the ground and outside the courts during Khan’s period of arrest.

Based on the most recent study conducted by 10VPN, the demand for VPN services experienced a significant surge of 489 percent on May 9th when compared to the average daily demand observed in the previous 28 days.

On May 11, the Lahore High Court accepted a petition challenging the suspension of internet services and access to different social media websites. The petitioner, Advocate Abuzar Salman Niazi, contended before the court that the move was in violation of the country’s laws and the fundamental rights of the citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. The court issued notices to the federal government and the PTA to submit replies by May 22.

The same day, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah announced that internet access would likely be restored in the next 36 hours. The following day (May 12), however, Sanaullah stated that the government consult with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif regarding blocking internet services if tensions continued.

As tensions subsided following Khan’s release on bail by the Islamabad High Court on May 12, the PTA began restoring internet services under the directives of the MOI, according to a spokesperson. The Authority, however, did not receive orders regarding reinstating access to social media platforms, which remain blocked as of the filing of this report.

Users and social media activists are continuing their call for the complete restoration of access to online platforms.

Katalyst Labs founder Jehan Ara questioned Pakistan’s claim to being a democracy. In a tweet, she questioned the rationale behind blocking social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, stating that this was not the first time such actions had been taken. She further pointed out that access to information and freedom of expression were supposedly guaranteed as basic human rights under the Constitution, raising concerns about the state of democracy in the country.

Maria Memon, a prominent anchorperson, drew attention to the fact that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also resorted to using a VPN in order to access Twitter, as the platform was inaccessible without it.

Sahar Habib Ghazi, the Editor for VICE South Asia, tweeted that despite having 4G connectivity, they were unable to use Twitter and most other social media platforms without a VPN, whether on 4G or WiFi.

The suspension of internet services has also been estimated to have resulted in losses upwards of Rs. 2.49 billion in the telecom sector, while local e-commerce industries and services also reported losses over the past four days.


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