September 24, 2023

No sign of lifting restrictions despite lack of information and losses suffered by employees and businesses.

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Mohammed Faisal, a food delivery driver in Karachi, has lost 6,000 rupees ($20) in the past three days.

The 26-year-old man relies on the WhatsApp messaging service to receive and track the location of his food orders.

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He uses his trusty motorbike and smartphone with mobile broadband to navigate the main roads, narrow streets and densely populated areas of Pakistan’s largest and most populous city.

Following the arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan three days ago, mobile internet services across the country are still suspended.

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On Thursday, Khan’s release was ordered after the country’s Supreme Court found his arrest illegal. However, the mobile broadband shutdown has not been lifted.

Passengers pass a car on fire during a protest by Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf Party activists and supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan over his arrest in Lahore, May 11, 2023. [Arif ALI/ AFP]

In a metropolitan area where street names and house numbers are rarely used for navigation, Faisal’s work has all but come to a halt due to lack of internet access when he is on the road.

“I can’t get orders because mobile data isn’t working,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he was wasting fuel trying to find addresses without navigation apps.

Security forces blocked several roads and intersections in major cities in an attempt to contain the protesters.

“Roadblocks and data outages have deprived me of my livelihood,” Faisal said.

Information dimming

Nearly 125 million people have been affected by the government’s decision to suspend mobile broadband and block access to social media apps.

Mohammad Fayyaz, who lives in a village in the eastern province of Punjab, feels cut off from the rest of the country at a time of major political upheaval.

“We use YouTube to watch the news, but since most social media applications have been restricted since Tuesday, we feel disconnected from what is happening in Islamabad or Lahore,” he told Al Jazeera from his village of Maanga, on 255 km (158 miles) to the east. capital, where the paramilitaries took Khan on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) told Al Jazeera that he had been ordered by the Home Ministry to suspend mobile broadband services as protests erupted following Khan’s arrest.

While mobile users have reported difficulties using social apps including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, PTA spokesman Malahat Obeid denied that the apps were blocked by the communications authority.

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“These apps are still running, but in slowdown mode, so you can’t say they are blocked,” she said, referring to the practice used by ISPs to limit internet speed without informing users.

A report from the Open Observatory, a global open data resource that tracks internet censorship, shows that YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were restricted by service providers on Tuesday evening, with users unable to access Instagram after Wednesday morning.

global condemnation

The closure was criticized by human rights organizations who called on the Pakistani government to lift the restrictions.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk stated that “freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the rule of law are the keys to resolving political conflicts.”

Human Rights Watch called it a “drastic measure” that it says deprives ordinary people of “access to vital information, hinders access to health care, and limits the ability of journalists to upload photos and videos documenting government abuse.”

The sharp rise in VPN usage

Mobile users in Pakistan are familiar with restrictions on internet services and applications. In 2013, YouTube was banned after the posting of an anti-Islamic film on the video streaming service led to protests across the country. The ban was lifted three years later, but authorities have imposed an unannounced closure after major protests in the past few years.

As soon as the closure was announced on Tuesday, Twitter users took to the platform to share new ways to get around the ban and exchange notes on the most useful VPN services.

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“Day [Tuesday] ended with VPN demand 1329% above the average in the 28 days prior to the social media block,” Simon Migliano of Top10VPN, a website that analyzes and rates VPN services, told Al Jazeera.

A blow to a fragile economy

In addition to cutting off information and restricting communications, the shutdown has also affected various business sectors in the cash-strapped country as it awaits a $1 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

“As a high-tech logistics company, we’ve seen a sharp drop in sales volumes – 36 percent – since May 9,” said Hasan Khan, CEO of Trax, which claims to have the world’s third-largest share of e-commerce order fulfillment. Pakistan.

Pakistani media reports say the telecommunications sector has suffered $2.85 million in losses since Tuesday, while the government has lost nearly $1 million in tax revenue.

[email protected], an association representing Pakistan’s IT sector, said the sector will lose at least $3 million a day until restrictions are lifted.

On Thursday, a group of venture capital firms focused on start-ups and the digital economy released a statement saying that the restrictions and suspension of mobile broadband “will add to the negative perception by investors” and that immediate action from the government of Pakistan is needed to lift the restrictions.

According to Nighat Dad, a Pakistani lawyer and digital rights activist, the shutdown of mobile broadband and social media violates Pakistan’s constitution.

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“The ban violates Article 19 A of the Constitution and [people’s] freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution,” she said, urging the government to decide “proportionately, state its legitimate purpose and be very transparent about these shutdowns.”

However, the telecommunications authority that imposed the total suspension of mobile broadband has not specified when the country’s 125 million mobile broadband users will be able to use the service again.

“We cannot confirm when the suspension will be lifted as we are acting under orders from the Home Office,” PTA’s Obeid said.

Additional report by Aliya Chukhtai.