The human cost of the X shutdown

March 3, 2024

It is essential that internet users see internet censorship and shutdowns as egregious violations and resist them

The human cost of the X shutdown


t the time of writing this piece, Twitter, now known as X, has been inaccessible for more than a week. This has meant that users in Pakistan have been unable to access information shared on the platform; deprived of communities and networks they have built on the platform; and denied the right to express themselves online.

Many users now rely on the platform for their work. This is not limited to businesses dependent on social media platforms for advertisement and service delivery, but also includes professionals like writers, artists and journalists. In many ways, for better or for worse, social media platforms have come to provide the necessary digital infrastructure for disseminating information.

Given the wide-reaching impact of shutting down even a single platform, there is a dire need to articulate shutdowns in a language that highlights their impact on people – the human impact of internet shutdowns. Advocacy strategies focusing on freedom of expression, the right to information and the human right to the internet are getting at this human impact, but are often abstracted to the point that these rights are rendered legalistic goalposts as opposed to being tied to human experience.

As technologies became lifelines – we reach for phones to contact a loved one in times of grief – internet disruptions are increasingly tied to restrictions on the most fundamental aspects of our lives. The mobile phone network shutdown on the polling day not only severely impacted the transparency of the elections and the ability of voters to access vital information, but also caused massive disruption to the lives of people just trying to live their lives. For instance, riders for food delivery and hide-hailing applications are engaged in extremely precarious employment and living as daily wagers. Mobile internet shutdowns essentially mean that they cannot receive and deliver orders, taking away a day’s wage from them in a flailing economy.

If you are someone who has come to rely on applications such as Careem and In-Drive for purposes of mobility, you are left to improvise in cities where the coverage of public transport leaves a lot to be desired. If you have a family member at a hospital, you cannot contact them for an entire day and are left wondering how they are doing. Technologies might not be sentient yet, but they are now tied to our lives and have a human impact.

The same goes for social media platforms. Twitter is now the primary source of news for many, even mainstream media outlets extensively report statements published on the platform by public figures. It is also an important platform for movements and users to raise alarm about human rights violations. These individuals and organisations have invested considerable time and resources on the platform, and shutting it down has far-ranging consequences.

Digital rights are no longer the exclusive concern of digital rights activists and organisations. These should be at the centre of demands by all human rights, pro-democracy and people’s movements. What is missing right now is the collective voice of internet users.

Concerns about platform shutdowns and censorship are often dismissed by arguing that access is still possible through VPNs. Apart from the fact that VPN use requires a certain degree of digital literacy so that users above a certain age or a below a literacy level are extremely unlikely to use VPNs, this platform shutdown has been accompanied by intermittent VPN throttling making it extremely difficult to access the platform even through a VPN. This portends a worrying sign for the future where censorship circumvention tools may also be blocked.

Many of us might find alternatives to these, or be forced to do so, but the loss of mobile and platform-specific shutdowns is not simply a freedom of expression issue – they are tied to issues of economic justice, safety and democracy. While rights tied to access to technologies and the internet are often trivialised, these perceptions are predicated on an underestimation of the central role they play in our lives.

Many rights advocates within Pakistan and across the world have been fighting for access to the internet and mobile technologies to be considered a human right - uneven access within and between communities leads to further inequality. Additionally, given how entrenched technologies are in the way we order society, information ecosystems and essential services deliver, they have become a basic need rather than a luxury.

It is essential that movements and political parties in Pakistan, particularly those advocating for civil rights, incorporate these rights into their demands and organise around them. The distinction between the “offline” and “online” world no longer stands. The false binary has collapsed as we see technologies blending seamlessly into our lives. Online rights are equally as important as offline rights.

The right to protest and assembly is now invariably tied to access to mobile networks and the internet. This is precisely why governments across the world shut down the internet when faced with street protests. This was recently seen when the Indian government imposed an internet shutdown to curtail the Delhi Chalo march. Digital rights are no longer the exclusive concern of digital rights activists and organisations. They should be at the centre of demands by all human rights, pro-democracy and people’s movements.

A collective voice of internet users is missing in these conversations. It is essential that internet users come to see internet censorship, breaches of data privacy and internet shutdowns as egregious violations and resist these. Deployment of memes, trending hashtags, flooding comments sections of public officials and sharing stories are some of the ways users can start calling out arbitrary decisions by state authorities to deprive internet users of their rights to access, use and enjoy the internet.

The writer is a researcher and campaigner on human and digital rights issues.

The human cost of the X shutdown