2013: The good, the bad and the ugly of internet in Pakistan

Published: January 8, 2014
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Screenshot from the Hug YouTube viral video.

Screenshot from the Hug YouTube viral video.

Many had high hopes that 2013 would see Pakistan finally begin to implement positive changes with regards to its ongoing internet explosion and rapidly advancing information technology field. It was hoped that the state would shed the controversial, sometimes shadowy cloak, under which it had operated in 2012.

Cause for optimism stemmed from a change of guard in the power corridors after the general elections. It was expected that a new regime in Islamabad would strategize differently, based on the programs completed under the Punjab provincial government over the previous year.

Unfortunately, with the PML-N led government’s six months in office nearly complete, hindsight offers only cautious optimism rather than the much-needed change that was hoped for. Very little has changed in terms of how the state tackled the many challenges cyberspace and technology threw up.

All cause for optimism then remains firmly with the unexpected consequences of internet penetration, technological advancement, and how citizens and private enterprise continue to innovate and grow, despite many roadblocks.

                                                            First, the bad

The year continued to witness tech trends which had previously been met with furrowed brows and general public disdain.

 

YouTube ban continues

The YouTube ban instituted in September 2012 continued throughout 2013, save a few hours of disruption. Students couldn’t access invaluable videos relevant to their courses. Musicians had trouble promoting their work in a cost effective manner. Independent artists and filmmakers could not showcase their talent on one of the world’s biggest video platforms. Even mainstream media organisations suffered, unable to find a better, more cost effective way to archive news and shows. Millions were affected, but the government had little to offer in the way of a solution to the crisis.

The interim setup termed the matter too sensitive to handle, especially with the more important tasks of elections at hand. The incoming Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz administration and the new Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman kept promising the public that they would re-open the site soon. But before a Lahore High Court judge, the government admitted defeat, conceding their solution of blocking links to the specific videos was hopelessly failing.

Net freedom

The government also launched elaborate plans to set up a massive firewall, just like our friends in China. For this purpose help was sought from the west in the form of Canada-based Netsweeper. Even more worryingly, FinFisher, a piece of computer spyware used for monitoring the online space was detected installed in Pakistan.

It was no surprise then that a Freedom on the Internet report found Pakistan to be at the bottom of its list.

 

 

Connectivity issues

To make matters worse, half of Pakistan’s internet temporarily suffered from a tear in the under-sea cable that links Pakistan to the wider internet – though that was a minor issue compared to Pakistan being ranked a low 172 globally for download speeds.

NSA spying

Ironically, it turned out that being connected was among the biggest problems for Pakistanis. Revelations from former US-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, showcased how our allies in the War on Terror had been spying on Pakistanis with 13.5 billion pieces of email, phone and fax communications intercepted.

                                                            Next, the ugly

As bad as some things were for Internet users in Pakistan, some acts even surprised those already weary of the government’s shenanigans.

 

More bans 

The year saw multiple online bans for reasons unknown. The most disturbing in that series of blocks was that of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). The site was blocked for two days before being restored, though not before specific pages belonging to a particular movie was rendered inaccessible through the Pakistan internet gateway.

The government explained that there was an inter-minesterial committee that reviewed and approved blocks for websites, but this was just another smokescreen for the general public who were never consulted, nor told why websites were being blocked. Consequently, an untold number of blocks were implemented on news sites, Facebook pages, Baloch sites and others, under presumably abstract, ill-defined laws.

The new Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman took up her role bustling with ideas, including a block on torrents, and suggestions of having Google banned unless they complied with the government. No surprise that after the outcry over YouTube’s continued ban, these ideas were ill received, especially on Twitter. The minister terminated her account on the social media network.

The Sindh government, having failed to forensically trace, and apprehend criminals, sought to upstage them by requesting the federal government (and testing unannounced) to have  cross-platform messaging applications such as Skype, Whatsapp, Viber and Tango blocked.

Legal complications also came to the fore, and the online world became a headache for the overworked judiciary with Twitter feuds landing in court, and even an FIR being drawn up against a lawyer for ‘threatening’ a judge in a tweet.

 

Reality of online hate speech

Arguably the ugliest part of 2013 for internet in Pakistan came in the immediate aftermath of riots in Rawalpindi during Ashura. Social media was used to disseminate fake or distorted images and misleading narratives of what occurred in a bid to rile up emotions and inflame sectarian tension.

With rising concerns over the spread of hate speech, cases of harassment, stalking and even kidnappings via social media, the prime minister ordered the drafting of a law to crackdown on hate speech. This after the controversial Fair Trial Bill was signed into law in 2013.

                                                        Finally, the good 

Despite the many setbacks in local cyberspace, there were victories to be had in 2013.

 

Website unblocked

Amid all the blocks, the website of news magazine Rolling Stones was unblocked and made accessible (just don’t search for Gen Stanley McChrystal).

 

Hug YouTube

People in Karachi who were missing YouTube gave the video site a big hug. A Tribune survey also encouragingly showed that as many as 89% of people were still getting their YouTube fix by using proxies to get around blocks set up by the PTA.

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Hugs for YouTube!

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Meanwhile, Google showed (on YouTube), how its services brought together two childhood friends separated by the Partition, through its various products in an homage to how mobile was over taking desktops for access to the Internet.
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Google also promised to unveil its own freedom to access application, uProxy, in 2014. It promises to provide a safer connection to the internet that by-passes surveillance and blocks instituted by governments so that people can access the internet without inhibition.

 

Mobile catches up with desktops

In 2013, an encouraging 30 million people were quoted to be accessing the internet in Pakistan, with 15 million doing so on their mobile phones. Using mobiles for accessing the internet is opening up new possibilities, and possibly an oncoming internet revolution with the expected arrival of 3G.

 

Starting up Pakistan

Already considered a cultural center of Pakistan, Lahore also tried to take on the role of tech center as it saw the first batch of the start-up incubation programme, Plan9, graduating.

There was more to cheer from the tech-prenuer world, with start-up ‘Convo’ raising $5m from a Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist. Another tech company, FireEye managing to raise $304 million in an IPO on Nasdaq. In all, the local tech industry’s revenues hit an estimated $2.8 billion of the global industry share. According to [email protected], “most tech companies are growing in excess of 30% a year annually.”

Farhan Masood was recognised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum earlier this year for his product, the world’s fastest retina and face scanner algorithm called SmartXS.

Another less successful but far more amusing launch was that of a halal search engine, Halalgoogling – that would safely steer Pakistanis away from immodest or haram content, and return only halal results for searches.

Last but definitely not least, Pakistan’s mobile apps industry has continued to grow from strength to strength, expanding in range and gaining in clout and recognition.

 

3G gets back on track

Things can only get better on the 3G auction front. Despite the government’s stillborn plans, the 3G spectrum auction seems to have finally got on track with a new PTA chairman in office and a timeline for license auction announced.

 

Social media boom

This was the year for going social on the internet, with social networks and chatting being the number one activity for Pakistanis according to a Tribune survey. Pakistanis gave Facebook a big ‘like’, or 11 million likes for that matter.

The year saw the Pakistan Army join Facebook and Twitter to further their social contact with local users. Many other institutions, organizations, companies, celebrities, and politicians followed suit, with even former President Asif Ali Zardari joining Twitter as social media continued to build real-world clout.

While politicians used social media to connect directly with their supporters, and to rally them against their opponents, there was the rise in the use of social media for small businesses selling products like clothes, electronics, even food and a host of services. Tourism too got a boost through programs arranged on social media. Some even used social media to mobilise people to do 14 acts of kindness on Independence day, August 14 – just one of many charity and relief campaigns carried out via social media throughout the year.

The year was also a victory for self-expression (despite the YouTube ban), especially through music and videos online. Social media also became the best platform for new and independent artists from the likes of Taher Shah to Dynoman, the Lahooti live sessions and the rise of Indie-Online labels.

Conclusion

In all, 2013 was a mixed bag for Pakistan’s online space. While some doors appeared to be closing, others remained open, thanks in large part to the efforts of private enterprise and common citizens.

Though great things are forecast for 2014, including the highly anticipated 3G spectrum auction that is expected to bring in $1.2 billion in revenue, the shroud of ignorance and fear that dominates the state’s strategising for cyberspace remains a troubling reality.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Jan 8, 2014 - 5:53PM

    Great work, Gibran. Your article was really informative.
    Internet use is increasing in Pakistan which is a great thing. It all depend on us how we use it.
    Pakistan is a fertilized field in terms of IT. There are many innovative and creative people like Arfa, Bara and Uzair. Government should supppot their people.
    And about youtube ban, i think it should be lifted because people are still using Youtube through proxies or using vpn softwares like hotspot.

    Recommend

  • Bilal
    Jan 8, 2014 - 6:46PM

    No surprise that in a society where the people are not encouraged to indulge in critical thinking and empirical evidence, a ban on books and websites would follow. Embracing a straightjacket based on dogma and superstition has caused enormous harm to our country.

    Recommend

  • Jan 8, 2014 - 7:25PM

    Good Job !!! Well DoneRecommend

  • talat haque
    Jan 8, 2014 - 7:35PM

    Good work! get the people into developing an analytic mind / attitude!Recommend

  • Talha
    Jan 8, 2014 - 8:01PM

    The best research article I have read on Tribune in ages. Excellent work Gibran!

    Recommend

  • Jan 8, 2014 - 8:12PM

    Excellent job. Very informative and interesting article. It felt like I am reading a book, lol. But yeah, best article so far I’ve ever read on Tribune in a long time. More people need to read this article as there are non comparing to this one. Excellent job well done! :)

    Recommend

  • Jan 8, 2014 - 10:22PM

    I during my tenure as lecture created an educational channel on youtube, and put lot of video tutorials in urdu and english. It costed me lot of time and money to create that channel. Now govt. has banned youtube and no one from Pakistan is able to see my videos. My website is

    http://www.pakproject.com and youtube channel is http://www.youtube.com/paktutorRecommend

  • Instantaneous
    Jan 8, 2014 - 10:31PM

    Let’s ban all books, internet and TV in Pakistan alongside any form of technology developed after the 10th century. We should also ban paper and ink and start riding animals

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  • Jan 8, 2014 - 10:56PM

    finally some research aspects on tribune.. Good work..Recommend

  • Jan 8, 2014 - 11:33PM

    Really good research and a suggestion this whole thing can be made a unique and cool infograph. (Y)

    Recommend

  • Ali S
    Jan 9, 2014 - 12:48AM

    I wish the TV media mounts a full-on campaign against what seems like indiscriminate internet restrictions. There is a whole bunch of sites which are banned for God only knows what reason (such as the gossip sites Hollywood Reporter and JustJared, Rolling Stone’s site was only recently unblocked). The internet is the currently the only truly free frontier of information.

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  • Sexton Blake
    Jan 9, 2014 - 2:57AM

    The above graph showed most Western countries as being free. However, many items are not permitted, and at the very least Western Internet users are being routinely spied upon by various government intelligence bodies such as the NSA. Hardly free.

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