Is Pakistan using a firewall to censor social media platforms? | Explained

Pakistani media outlets reported that the country is deploying a Chinese-style firewall to block access to social media platforms

Updated - June 14, 2024 10:29 am IST

Published - June 14, 2024 09:48 am IST

People wave the Pakistani flag during a sporting event. Image used for representational purposes.

People wave the Pakistani flag during a sporting event. Image used for representational purposes. | Photo Credit: AP

Pakistani media outlets reported in the past week that the country plans to implement a Chinese-style firewall to block users from accessing social media platforms.

Pakistan Observer and Daily Ausaf claim the government is ready to set up a ‘National Firewall’ to stop people from accessing X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, and YouTube. These outlets also noted that there are plans for filtering keywords to enforce the policy and block unwanted content. Other media reports claim even those using virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the internet would be hit by this digital firewall.

However, media outlet Samaa on June 10 quoted Pakistan’s Information Minister Atta Tarar as saying that no ‘Chinese-style firewall’ was being set up, though he did speak about the need to crack down on hate speech and misinformation.

Such conflicting reports reveal the lack of clarity regarding the current status of Pakistan’s potential firewall and its implementation. But, it must be noted that Pakistan does have a history of curtailing people’s access to the Internet, either through website or social media blocks. Some examples include a Twitter block in 2017 that was flagged by the company itself, and internet disruptions earlier this year around the time of the country’s elections.

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How does a digital firewall work?

Simply put, firewalls are security tools that stop online traffic from reaching certain sites. They can prevent malicious actors from targeting individual users’ computer systems or home networks, and even thwart cyber threats on specific websites.

Though in recent times they are associated with censorship by oppressive governments, firewalls were meant to be a security tool. In fact, if you look at the settings of your personal computer, you will likely see options to set up firewalls of your own with varying restriction levels. A firewall can be a physical device, or a software-based tool. It depends on a specific user’s needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, large firewalls like the Great Firewall of China, for example, are highly complex cybersecurity tools maintained at scale to prevent people from accessing large sections of the Internet. That means nation states can entirely stop citizens from accessing the most commonly used websites on the Internet - say social media sites or information gathering platforms.

While VPNs or privacy browsers can help disguise a user’s location, the amount of friction in the process of trying to bypass a firewall puts off most people and repels those who lack technical skills and knowledge.

How do government-imposed firewalls affect people’s lives?

When used by nation-states, a firewall impedes activists, journalists, dissidents, and regime critics from obtaining information critical of the government. Internet shutdowns and social media blocks also prevent governments or military authorities from being held accountable during periods of civil unrest and violence.

Whenever an Internet shutdown or block is suddenly implemented, the country’s citizens suffer a huge setback, education is disrupted, and healthcare institutions struggle to provide quality care.

According to estimates from the digital privacy research group Top10VPN, Pakistan has shut down the internet for 1,752 hours so far in 2024.

“Pakistan’s restrictions have been by far the costliest election-related shutdown, costing $351 million,” noted the group in its report, adding that the economic cost of internet shutdowns worldwide last year was $9.13 billion.

A firewall might look like a viable alternative to authoritarian nation states who wish to replace a larger, free Internet with a controlled intra-net. However, setting up and maintaining a firewall is no easy task. Even for a small company, firewall implementation and maintenance are expensive. The firewalls require constant monitoring to thwart bad actors and patch security vulnerabilities as soon as they are detected. At a national level, this expenditure is much higher as a far greater number of people are looking to bypass the restrictions.

Firewalls also bring up antitrust concerns because they hurt competition. Well-performing companies and businesses that would normally gain more users may be blocked and replaced by government-approved alternatives with lower privacy and service standards, degrading the Internet user’s experience even further.

Adding to this, apps and services may be combined for the authorities’ convenience instead of encouraging users to try out new and independent alternatives. The Great Firewall of China is a major example of this phenomenon.

Both India and Pakistan have a record of censoring the internet or shutting it down. India blocked access to the Internet 116 times in 2023, per a report released by the Keep It On coalition.

Has Pakistan blocked the internet or social media before?

Pakistan has frequently obstructed people from accessing the Internet or specific social media platforms over the course of more than a decade.

Talks of a Chinese-style national firewall in Pakistan have been making rounds since around 2012, though not much verified data is available regarding the status of this project and its financial details.

In 2012, the country’s government blocked around 20,000 websites, including YouTube, per a Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) official. In 2017, Jack Dorsey-led Twitter posted on its Global Government Affairs account that it was aware of reports that the “Pakistani government has taken action to block Twitter service, as well as other social media services.”

More recently, in the first two months of 2024 as Pakistan prepared for its elections and the results, the government throttled access to Elon Musk-owned X for days on end. Internet service was also largely affected during this time period. Activists protested the move, but government authorities attributed it to system upgrades.

“Pakistani authorities have already imposed multiple shutdowns that disrupted opposition activities during this election cycle. At least 11 Internet shutdowns were imposed during the last election year of 2018, and the authoritarian use of shutdowns has only emboldened through 2022, 2023, and now 2024,” said digital rights advocacy group Access Now, in a statement in February.

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