Published in May-Jun 2023
MAMUN M. ADIL: Who were the people behind Pakistan’s Internet Landscape?
JAHANZAIB HAQUE: The report is an initiative led by Bytes for All Pakistan (B4A), a human rights organisation and a research think tank [with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies]; they asked me to work on a research-based report that looked at the digital space from a human rights perspective. I realised that as we lacked perspectives on the digital space on a broader level, it would have been extremely challenging to develop a report that focused specifically on human rights, as no research of this kind was available. So we decided to do the report in the current format so that it can be used as a reference document to acquire a sense of Pakistan’s current internet position. We have been publishing Pakistan’s Internet Landscape for the last 10 years, although we missed a few years due to financial constraints. This year’s report was funded by B4A. I am the author and Muhammad Omer Hayat, Abdul Sattar Abbasi and Sameen Daud Khan were the assistant researchers.
MMA: What kinds of audiences is the report targeting?
JH: The report serves as a valuable resource for various stakeholders, including parliamentarians, NGOs and organisations like TikTok. Some even use it to train new staff. It is also the go-to document for researchers, students and anyone seeking a quick overview of Pakistan’s digital landscape. It serves as a starting point, allowing individuals to delve deeper into specific areas based on their requirements. All the reports are available online on B4A’s website as well as other platforms.
MMA: How has the structure of the report changed over time?
JH: One of the updates is an informed comment at the opening of each section of the report. We started this a few years ago to provide context. We reached out to people working in specific spaces, but because there are few experts in such areas, some people have contributed to more than one section.
MMA: Which areas remain unchanged?
JH: The report emphasises where Pakistan stands in relation to certain indicators, such as internet penetration and its quality, blasphemy, internet censorship, governance and child pornography. Certain topics are always covered because the report is a curation of what has happened over a specific year. Fintech and e-commerce are two new areas we have explored because they are developing sectors; they are probably the only areas where you can find any positive news, because Pakistan’s online trends are generally negative especially compared to the rest of South Asia, let alone the rest of the world.
MMA: The report cites the PTA’s figures that internet penetration is 54.43-55.81%. How accurate are these figures?
JH: PTA states such numbers, but they are more about possible rather than actual penetration. They are more about how far the telcos have extended their 4G network access. What they don’t talk about is the poor level of their service compared to other countries. I think a more meaningful metric when we talk about internet penetration is ‘meaningful internet access’ which is restricted to urban areas. By meaningful I mean access that allows users to carry out a range of activities via the internet, be it streaming, uploading content or banking transactions.
MMA: What percentage of the population has ‘meaningful’ access?
JH: It is hard to gauge because of the lack of data. However, it is pretty low in comparison to even South Asia, although the overall numbers in terms of internet penetration are improving, thanks to mobile broadband especially.
MMA: What are the main challenges in terms of penetration?
JH: The telcos would mostly argue that it is about taxes and government interference.
MMA: What themes have emerged repeatedly since the report began publication?
JH: A huge and consistent finding is the massive gender gap when it comes to internet access. In a study we referenced, women were asked whether they considered the internet to be useful, and the majority said no. This is because they have not been given the chance to use the internet, let alone understand it; they often don’t even have their own phone and rely on their husbands. As a result, many women don’t understand the potential usefulness of the internet.
MMA: What were the major issues to surface in the report?
JH: Censorship was a major issue. In the section ‘Censorship & Media’, Zarrar Khuro says that when the authorities want to target someone, they will find a law to use against them… and ultimately there is really no point in being too careful about the law because their application tends to be situational. For example, sedition is a charge that can be applied to almost anything. All the reports we have released over the last decade point out that the state operates with complete impunity when it comes to internet censorship, and that the laws make it difficult for people, like journalists, to voice their opinion.
MMA: What other issues has the report highlighted that are worrisome?
JH: I think that blasphemy is creeping in further and there are new ways in which it is ‘taking place.’ For example, protests can be organised on social media and then offline acts of violence can become the consequence. Rumour mills and accusations start on social media, and based on those accusations, despite the lack of evidence, cases kickoff. According to the report, the judiciary and the state apparatus are barely standing up to these incidents, and the moment a case comes forward, they tend to immediately lock the person to ensure their safety most of the time. Another aspect the report touches upon is how incidents such as lynching are recorded, shared online and then go viral. Another massive issue is child pornography which is prevalent in most third world countries.
MMA: By child pornography, do you mean creating content or viewing it?
JH: It is mostly about the creation. Third world countries are being exploited, which is why a lot of the production of child pornography takes place in countries like Pakistan and the Philippines. I don’t think the problem is so much about consumption as there is not much data available that can substantiate that.
MMA: Which positive aspects do you see emerging?
JH: Fintech and e-commerce are developing and this is a good thing as the more people conduct banking transactions in the digital space, the better. I think that in the next report or the one after that, we will see growth regarding small and medium enterprises and start-ups.
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