Of the 35 million internet users in Pakistan, approximately 31 million are active on social media. From the 40 million smartphone users across the country, more than 60% access social media from their phones. More than just the work-from-home and freelancers, companies across industries use the reach and lifestyle alignment social media platforms give them to promote their businesses to consumers online. And when a ban blocks user access, it hurts the bottom line. There is a tangible impact.
Tangible impact means loss of money or business. The intangible impact being the loss of confidence and increased frustration with an ecosystem that can be erratically disconnected anytime the authorities deem appropriate. While the government is responsible for the security of its citizens, there is a very fine line between censorship and security.
Reference to the ban on electronic news media and social media platforms on November 25th and 26th in an attempt to control the spread of any dis-information, there were reports of interruptions in the usage of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The web versions of all local news channels and communication platforms such as WhatsApp remained accessible and functional.
Ammar Haider, a Digital Strategist, comments that his company had to halt their promotions online. A digital activist and social activist, Iftikhar Hussain, commented that his team was supposed to run a time-bound campaign for activism which needed to be halted. Co-Founder and CEO of ToffeeTV, Talea Zafar, commented, “After the 2014 ban on YouTube, our digital channel suffered greatly because we used to pull all our content from there. I recall we waited a long time to salvage our local audience before moving off it completely and investing in stand-alone hosting options. The ban over the weekend make us question the dependency of YouTube and other social media platforms we rely on. How are business supposed to grow viewership this way?”
The Digital Rights Foundation, a Pakistani digital rights group in collaboration with TheTurkeyNetBlocks, an internet shutdown observatory project, has conducted the survey to determine the extent and reach of the internet disruption during the imposed ban. The results of the investigation will be published. According to TheTurkeyNetBlocks, a 5-hour testing was conducted on 25th November 2017, taking measurements from 121 unique vantage points distributed through 16 ASNs across the major regions in Pakistan via the NetBlocks web probe measurement network.
Farieha Aziz, Bolo Bhi Co-Founder says, “While the government and PEMRA have always used procedures and sections under the PEMRA Act to curtail the electronic media, with respect to the Internet and social media, blocking powers have always been exercised arbitrarily and in an ad hoc manner. To give it legal cover, Section 37 of PECA was introduced to empower the PTA to act as content regulator the way PEMRA does for media. Arguably, these powers are now flowing from there. As we have just stated in the response we’ve filed in our ongoing case before the IHC, Section 37 may have extended (what we still consider an overbroad and unconstitutional) power and mandate to the PTA, however, this in no way extends jurisdiction to the Government of Pakistan to make these decisions through its ministries. This business of MOITT and MOI assuming jurisdiction and authority and issuing directions to PTA is reminiscent of the pre-PECA, assumptive, ad hoc regime.”
Farieha continues, “Going forward, we can safely expect more erratic measures and actions now that there is recognition that social media is a potent force. And these measures will most likely be justified under the ‘legal’ regime set up under PECA (though still constitutionally suspect). This will remain an ongoing battle.”
With heightened campaigning expected by political parties in the lead up to the elections, the continuation of meaningful activism and effective mobilization of resources, businesses will remain sceptical with the redundancy of social media – at least until the relevant authorities finally make the process of unplugging, more transparent.