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"Troubling" state of cyberspace in Pakistan, finds new report

Bytes for All

This statement was originally published on on 5 August 2016.

Bytes for All, Pakistan, a local human rights organization, has raised concern over the declining state of fundamental rights in online spaces highlighting the government's strategy of fighting terrorism by infringing upon civil liberties. Bytes for All's 2016 edition of its Internet Landscape of Pakistan series, documents and analyses the state of cyberspace in the country as 'troubling'.

According to the report, while access and speed of the Internet has improved, [cyberspace in] Pakistan still remains far behind the rest of the world. Increased access has also come with increased state control over the internet in the form of continuing censorship, greater monitoring of online activity and legislation open to interpretation, trampling on the basic rights of citizens while meting out harsh punishments.

Jahanzaib Haque, Chief Digital Strategist/Editor and author of the report, says, "Numerous positive developments that have been actualized in the online space are negated by the laws and policies being set in place. By this time next year, the progress that has been achieved will likely have regressed, with citizens and the very individuals who signed off on such policies left vulnerable to the abuse of power being granted in regulation of the Internet."

According to Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director at Bytes for All, Pakistan, "This report presents a big picture in terms of Internet in Pakistan, outlining the progress, and the factors that impede it. In this regard, this is a timely report, because among other issues, it stresses that the PECB, a damaging law for the cyberspace and civil liberties, is on the verge of being made into an act. If passed, the law will unconstitutionally give blanket powers to various government bodies to block or penalize freedom of expression and surveil ordinary citizens without any oversight, all under the guise of counterterrorism."

The said report continues the documentation of the country's internet landscape from a critical, human rights perspective and the document should be read as part historical record and part analysis.

The report also creates ground for issues such as Net Neutrality, and aims to provide reference points for meaningful dialogue with the hope that progressive policies, and more importantly, a progressive mindset emerges to guide Pakistan's online future.

Key findings of the report are:

• Pakistan's digital divide persists with access being rigidly determined by factors such as rural/ urban setting, age, education, income, and ownership a smartphone. These reasons contribute towards Pakistan continuing to rank among the five least connected countries globally.

• Pakistan's mobile internet users (3G/4G) stand at 26.19 million, while 29.32 million people subscribe to broadband internet services (inclusive of mobile broadband).

• The last two years have seen an increased coordination between the state and the Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, where companies have complied to varying degrees in blocking access to content, or providing private user date.

  • o In the case of YouTube, which remained banned for three years, Google was allowed to set up a localised version at the price of restricting content deemed by the government as 'objectionable.'
  • o The state has also built its relationship with Facebook, where millions of Pakistani users are active, to gain access to private data of some accounts.

• The PECB draft bill has been called a 'key pillar' of the National Action Plan (NAP) by the government - a multi-pronged strategy launched in 2015. NAP, has redefined Pakistan's policies including the internet in profound ways, shifting focus heavily towards anti-terrorism efforts.

  • o However, Critics fear the bill will be misused by the state to consolidate control of the cyberspace and target ordinary citizens.
  • o These efforts are being legitimized by the state by the passing of laws that justify invasion of privacy in the name of countering terrorism, namely the PPA and the upcoming PECB.

• The much-debated Pakistan Protection Act (PPA), which in its Schedule of offences contains "committed with the purpose of waging war or insurrection against Pakistan or threatening the security of Pakistan" cyber-crimes, Internet offences and other offences related to information technology, which facilitates any offence under this Act. The addition of section xiv, with no further definition of the terms used therein allow for all parts of the highly controversial act to apply to cyberspace.

• A small but steady stream of online 'blasphemy' cases indicate difficult times ahead in terms of 'blasphemy'-related censorship. However, a more worrying trend is the rise of real-world violence and arrests of individuals embroiled in such cases.

• Regarding surveillance, a number of revelations this year have established a clearer picture of the government's online surveillance efforts. Most critically, a Privacy International report uncovered that the government obtained 'cyber security' surveillance tools from multiple international companies that enable high-level spying. This was partly made possible by funding from foreign governments as part of counter-insurgency efforts.

The complete 'Pakistan Internet Landscape 2016' report can be downloaded here.

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