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Sunday June 23, 2024

37 days on, X still remains inaccessible

By Aimen Siddiqui
March 26, 2024
Logo of X seen on a mobile screen in this representational image. — AFP/File
Logo of X seen on a mobile screen in this representational image. — AFP/File  

KARACHI: It has been more than a month to the unannounced X (formerly Twitter) shutdown across Pakistan. Digital and tech experts say this has had devastating effects on digital outlets and businesses.

The CEO of The SquarePeg, a digital marketing agency, Zunaira Omar shares with The News that her business has been affected [because of the X ban]. She explains: “We are a digital marketing company with clients in MENA, North America and Europe. Since social media is a huge part of what we do, the X blockade means we cannot post for our clients—some of whom are participating in international trade shows and need live Twitter coverage.”

According to DataReportal, a company that provides digital insights, there are 4.5 million X users in Pakistan, equivalent to 1.9 per cent of the country’s population. While this arbitrary decision has angered many rights activists and X users, it has also caused losses to online businesses.

Zunaira points out how such bans are more problematic for IT companies: “Such bans give a very shoddy signal to the international community. The frequent social media and internet bans will eventually lead to international clients disengaging from us and moving to a more tech-friendly country, and if this trajectory continues, will lead to a drop in IT export revenue.” She also thinks that this current blockade may lead to “a significant dip in my engagement metrics.”

X was first restricted in Pakistan on February 17 after a video post of a government official went viral where the person confessed to manipulating the results of the February 8 elections. Since then, there has been no clarity on the part of the government regarding the ban. Officials pretend to be unaware of the situation, displaying ignorance when asked about the unofficial ban.

It was only recently that Information Minister Ataullah Tarar accepted that the ban was effective and had been in place since before the new government came to power. His tone was different than what was observed during his press talk on March 13 where he claimed that the social media platform was accessible to online users in the country. This claim was fact-checked by Geo.tv which called it “false and evidence-free”.

Lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii, who is representing a group of journalists and academics who have filed a petition in the Sindh High Court (SHC) against the unannounced ban shared a document filed by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), as part of its reply to the court, on his X account on March 20. It shows that the Ministry of Interior asked the PTA to block X on February 17. The ministry has now been given a chance to submit its reply by April 17.

So, to what extent does such a measure affect Pakistan’s IT industry which is still in its nascent stage? Speaking to The News, Co-founder of Data Darbar Mutaher Khan shares that the impact of the blockade “may not be as clear-cut. You could argue that it’s not a major platform in terms of sales or advertising so as such shouldn’t have too much effect on the operations. But such instances send a bad signal to everyone involved—employees, entrepreneurs and investors—about the fragility of digital platforms’ availability in Pakistan.”

He adds that such a ban “certainly discourages employees and entrepreneurs and erodes their confidence in institutions. Given the political and economic uncertainty of the last two years, many tech professionals have already moved abroad, as the Emigration Bureau data shows. Such arbitrary blockades further reinforce the impression that they cannot rely on the state for even something as basic as access to X. Plus, considering that this blockade is coming on the back of consistent speed throttling and cellular outages, that mistrust is quite grounded.”

Rights activists have already condemned the ban. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also posted its condemnation on X on February 19 and said: “Disrupting or shutting down the internet or any social media platforms bleed online businesses and commerce and adds to the misery of an already fragile and struggling economy. It also infringes onpeople’s right to democratic decision-making, information and expression. This practice must stop immediately.”

Journalists too have been affected by the X/Twitter blockade. Talking to The News, Shazia Mehboob, an Islamabad-based journalist and the founder of a digital media organization, says that she relies heavily on X to retarget her audience to her news website and to post breaking news: “I upload dozens of news posts on my personal and organization’s accounts, and because of the ban, I have been unable to access my account, let alone post anything. Now, when you rely on a platform to drive people to your website for conversions and when that medium is disrupted, there is bound to be a dip in clicks. This matters a lot for a digital media journalist.”

Shazia believes that the blockade is not only a local issue but also an international matter that leads to grave consequences. “The pressing question is: do IT/tech authorities want to act as facilitators or as someone who hinders people’s access to technology? Why are they nowhere to be seen?”

Internet disruptions also cause chaos in society, shares Fauzia Kalsoom Rana, a broadcast journalist who also works for Radio Pakistan. “When the blockade was made effective, it created panic and there were rumours about martial law. Some said that the authorities would impose an emergency.”

She mentions that while virtual private networks (VPNs) can help break the blockade, things are not that simple. “Media houses do not provide paid VPNs to journalists. And this time, there were problems with VPN connectivity as well.” Fauzia laments the fact that the country does not respect the people’s constitutional right to freedom of expression. “The ban did not stop many people from expressing their opinions though and authorities could not put an end to the current political dialogue. We observed a surge in users on other social networking platforms.”