Saturday May 25, 2024

VPN apps in Pakistan see surge in demand

Pakistan blocked access to X on February 17

By Aimen Siddiqui
April 10, 2024
The image shows the logo of X formerly known as Twitter. — Twitter/File
The image shows the logo of X formerly known as Twitter. — Twitter/File

KARACHI: Pakistan ranks third in the list of the five longest internet shutdowns in 2024, leading to a more than doubled VPN demand in the country.

Top10VPN, an independent review website that provides research on issues affecting internet freedom around the world, keeps Pakistan in third place on the basis of the prolonged social media blackout across the country. X has remained inaccessible in Pakistan for at least 45 days now.

In his comment to The News, co-founder of Data Darbar Mutaher Khan says, “As per, VPN services and web accelerators were the fastest growing subgenre in 2023, rising by 42 per cent. Pakistan too witnessed a spike in VPN usage during the year amid a host of internet restrictions.”

Pakistan blocked access to X on February 17. Top10VPN’s live tracker shows that VPN demand in the country increased by 131 per cent on February 19. While the demand plummeted in the next few days, it once again reached as high as 80 per cent above average by the end of February.

Speaking to The News, digital rights activist and director of Bolo Bhi Usama Khilji explains that “VPNs provide security to those who are susceptible to surveillance from hostile state and non-state actors.”

Mutaher Khan adds, “The usage of such apps is quite neutral and, in some cases, even needed. Especially in Pakistan, where the government is hell-bent on policing the internet to the extent that even the most basic social media platforms are not available. Such a heavy-handed approach is not going to work in technology, where innovation will always outpace the regulations.”

But is the use of VPNs restricted to avoiding government restrictions? According to the Global VPN Adoption Index, Pakistan ranks 19 out of 86 countries where VPN usage is high. At least 27,622,389 VPN downloads were made in the country, an over 50 per cent increase from 2022, when the number of downloads stood at 17,345,605.

On VPNs, Usama Khilji says that they are an “essential part of several businesses that require access based on location because of their service delivery across the world. They protect the security of financial transactions and other sensitive matters, and are useful in accessing content that may not be available for access in certain jurisdictions.”

Founder of StartupHQ Shahrukh Malik also shares that the use of VPNs is not limited to evading internet restrictions -- “there are a few people who actively pay for VPN services (mostly those who either travel abroad often or need to access entertainment options from other countries). Other than this, there are specific use-cases where businesses require VPN access to local networks.”

Should developers in Pakistan tap into the high demand and come up with local VPNs? Mutaher Khan says, “Pakistani developers need to focus on VPN products: there is already a pressing, and unfortunately growing, local demand for such products, which is currently channelled towards foreign companies. Just consider that SuperVPN has consistently ranked inside the top 15 apps in Pakistan by downloads for two years straight, at least.”

“More importantly, there is also a global market. In fact, utility and productivity (of which VPNs are a part) is the single largest genre globally by downloads, which stood at 24.8 billion in 2023. Consumer spending in this broader category was $5.6 billion,” he adds.

Per Shahrukh Malik, “There is scope [for Pakistani developers] if they can figure out a good revenue model that works for students and occasional VPN users and a good scalability model in terms of cost. I think trust is a factor when selecting a VPN, and most people would not choose just about any name. So if [Pakistani developers] can partner up with a big brand, that would be a good marketing move.”

DevOps engineer Ahmad Bilal Shehenshah, however, thinks that creating local VPNs is not an easy feat. “There are free VPNs available in the market, and the companies that offer such services have their servers stored in countries that do not bind them to keep a record of their users’ activity. In a country like Pakistan, where the government introduces policies that are not helpful for developers, companies will not see this market as lucrative. Besides this, the whole process of setting up servers for VPN services in Pakistan is challenging.”

Usama Khilji also agrees that the government’s policies regarding the registration of VPNs are “unnecessary and [the] antithesis to the entire objective of using [VPNs]. If Pakistan wants to progress and grow its IT and digital sectors, such draconian policies will have to be discarded.”

In Mutaher Khan’s opinion, “the government can definitely institute policies while trying to further restrict the internet, but they can only be successful in the short term. Users will find a way to access the platforms. The YouTube ban and the emergence of and ytpak are good examples of this. However, such measures can leave a long-lasting impact on the business side, such as throttling the traction for local creators and brands using social media for outreach.”

Shahrukh Malik supports this argument by adding, “enforcing internet restrictions is difficult on VPNs since the traffic is encrypted. This is one of the main reasons why someone might want a VPN. The business model does not work if a VPN provider has the same restrictions as internet service providers (ISPs).”