Pakistan fails to enjoy Internet freedom

For, the second time in a row, Pakistan has been listed amongst countries where citizens do not enjoy freedom of the internet, according to Freedom on the Net 2020 report.

Pakistan fails to enjoy Internet freedom

The annual report assesses the level of internet freedom in 65 countries around the world and Pakistan’s score was 26 on a scale of 100, which classified it among states where internet is “not free”.

The score was based on Obstacles to Access (limited penetration because of underdeveloped infrastructure), Limits on Content (online content is restricted by the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which authorises the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to undertake content management) and Violation of User Rights (intimidation, blackmail, and at times violence, in response to online activity).

There has been an increase in government surveillance and cyber sovereignty, and according to the report, Pakistan made policy and legal amendments to extend control over online content. “The online environment in Pakistan is tightly controlled by the government,” the Pakistan section of the report stated.

“Internet shutdowns, blocked websites, and arrests for an activity online remain authorities’ preferred tactics in their effort to suppress unwanted speech.”

According to the report, Pakistan’s Citizen Protection Rules gives authorities more access to personal data, and enhance the government’s ability to block or remove online content.

Last year, the country’s telecommunication authority told a parliamentary panel that it has blocked over 800,000 websites and 11,000 internet proxies containing pornographic content on the internet but has no proof that such content is uploaded from Pakistan.

There are also restrictions placed on social media platforms, according to the Facebook Transparency Report, the amount of content it restricted access to in Pakistan increased by over 30% during the reporting period – 5,690 items as compared to 4,174 from the second half of 2018.

The report highlighted three trends regarding the decline in Internet freedom.

“First, political leaders used the pandemic as a pretext to limit access to information,” it stated. “Second, authorities cited Covid-19 to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive.”

“The third trend has been the transformation of a slow-motion ‘splintering’ of the internet into an all-out race toward ‘cyber sovereignty,’ with each government imposing its own internet regulations in a manner that restricts the flow of information across national borders,” the report stated.

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The report also highlighted the problem of internet shutdown especially during an opposition political party’s rally and sit-in in October 2019.

Internet users in the country remained susceptible to threats, intimidation, and criminal prosecutions for their online activity during 2019-20, blasphemy charges based on social media posts and cases registered against journalists under PECA for their online expression still remain at large.

Pakistan also falls short in protecting journalists and activists for example #ArrestAntiPakJournalists trends in the country while at least one social media activist was stabbed fatally in June 2019, according to the Freedom on the Net report.

The research also found that eight out of 10 Pakistani women journalists who participated in the study self-censored to counter online violence.

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The Covid-19 pandemic also revealed the limited access to the internet in Pakistan, as “people with limited internet access were less able to get information about the virus or obtain other services online”, according to the report.

Restrictions on the Internet in regions such as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)still remains and thus have affected the ability of residents to access virtual learning opportunities and medical services.

“The chief justice of the (Islamabad) High Court ordered the PTA in April 2020 to restore 3G and 4G access in the (ex-FATA) region,” the report stated after a student petitioned the court. But the ruling had not been implemented up until May 2020, according to the report

Lastly, the issue of online censorship still persists in the country, the left-wing Awami Workers Party had petitioned the Islamabad High Court after the PTA blocked and later restored its website without giving any prior notice or explanation.

The country actively blocks torrenting sites, and recently blocked PUBG, dating apps and TikTok, of which the PUBG ban was overturned by the IHC.

To foster a reliable and diverse information space, the report suggests that policymakers should reject undue restrictions on access to information and free expression, especially during a pandemic and ensure fair and transparent content moderation as well as promote digital literacy.

The report highlighted that civil society groups and their allies have won victories in court that reversed network shutdowns and censorship decisions in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Sudan, Togo, and Zimbabwe. They should participate in strategic litigation whenever possible, or provide friendof-the-court filings that explain how certain forms or uses of digital technology undermine human rights.

Originally published at tribune