Pakistan cuts off mobile internet services on election day

Pakistan cuts off mobile internet services on election day

Pakistan reportedly suspended mobile internet services across the country on Thursday just before voting got underway in the country’s contentious general election, ostensibly for security reasons.

According to media reports, internet and mobile phone services were shut off just before the polls opened Thursday morning. The internet outage was subsequently confirmed by internet monitoring company Netblocks.

The Internet Society’s Pulse website, which tracks internet shutdowns globally, said that Internet traffic for mobile operators Mobilink (Jazz), Telenor Pakistan, and CMPak (Zong) dropped significantly between 1:45 and 2:30 UTC and began returning around 15:00 UTC, according to data from Cloudflare Radar.

Nikkei Asia reports that while fixed broadband service was still available in Islamabad, most people in Pakistan use mobiles for internet services.

The internet shutdown came despite assurances from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on Wednesday that internet services would continue to function normally on election day, and that the government has not issued any directives to shut services down.

However, the Interior Ministry said on Thursday it restricted mobile access due to the deteriorating security situation in the country. On Wednesday, at least 28 people were killed in twin bomb blasts outside candidates’ offices in Balochistan province.

The Interior Ministry has a history of shutting off internet services in response to terrorism threats and social unrest. It also recently shut down services to prevent online rallies held by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The PTI, as well as the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), have accused authorities of blocking internet access as a tactic to rig the election outcome in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former PM Nawaz Sharif.

A history of shutdowns

Critics say that internet access is crucial to free and fair elections, as voters use it to find polling stations, book transportation to get to them, report irregularities to the Election Commission of Pakistan and share information with other voters. The PTI also relies heavily on social media to communicate with supporters.

“Unwarranted restrictions on dissemination of information, despite reassurances to the contrary from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and Election Commission of Pakistan, are in breach of people’s human rights at this critical time in Pakistan” said Livia Saccardi, Interim Deputy Director for South Asia at Amnesty International in a statement. “Blanket shutdowns impacts people’s mobility, livelihood and ability to navigate through a difficult time further undermining their trust in authorities.”

Intentional internet shutdowns by government authorities on a local, regional or national basis have become more common in recent years, typically in the name of controlling civil unrest, fighting misinformation or protecting national security.

Pulse says it recorded 124 incidents across 18 countries in 2023 in which governments and other actors “intentionally disrupted Internet connectivity or blocked access to specific Internet services for their citizens.” The disruptions can last from a couple of hours to a week.

The practice is controversial not only because of issues of freedom of information, but also because of the impact on people’s livelihoods, particularly at a time when many countries are striving to establish digital economies.

Internet shutdowns also have an impact on economic productivity. Pulse reports that in Pakistan alone, a four-day internet shutdown in May 2023 following the arrest of Imran Khan cost the country nearly US$17 million in GDP revenue.

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