Introducing a New Project: The Economic and Social Impacts of Network Disconnection in Pakistan

The Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at Annenberg is supporting a new study being carried out by The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) in the UK and the NGO Bytes 4 All in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The purpose of the study, the first of its kind, is to gather and present data on the impacts of mobile and internet shutdowns in Pakistan, and on human rights issues such as health, education, and work. The government in Pakistan has often required companies to shut down access to the internet or mobile communications in the interest of public safety and security. This study aims to assist the government and telecommunication companies in developing strategies that are consistent with commitments to protecting human rights and ensuring public safety and security without compromising access to communications. The telecommunications company Telenor Pakistan has agreed to be the subject of the case study, which will reflect on and examine the challenge for businesses when faced with network shutdown requests from governments.


Pakistan faces a complex range of security related challenges. For example, according to a 2012 survey of terrorism incidents around the world, Pakistan was ranked second, after Iraq. When intelligence has indicated a threat to national security, such as when it is believed a bomb will be detonated by a mobile phone, the Interior Ministry and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) have often instructed telecommunication companies to suspend mobile and internet services. Historically, such shutdowns take place around religious or national holidays because incidents of terror have often occurred at those times. In a CGCS online question and answer session, Bytes 4 All discussed such occasions when the network has been disrupted in the past.

Pakistan is not the only government to implement such shut downs. In times of civilian strife, crisis, or emergency, governments worldwide have sometimes required temporary suspension of access to the internet or mobile phone services. Government cite harms that might follow if, for example, a bomb is detonated by a mobile phone, there is civil unrest fuelled by multiple messages promoting violence, or if unsubstantiated rumours that could incite mass violence are being disseminated.

At such times, governments claim that the intention of blocking access to communication is primarily to protect civilians from potential harms caused by terrorist acts.  Companies in most jurisdictions have a legal obligation to comply with government requests in situations where there is imminent threat of violence. As more and more people become connected and reliant on information communication technologies, however, network disruption or suspension is likely to negatively impact a range of human rights. It is critical, therefore, that alternatives to disconnection are explored. According to recent figures released by the PTA, there are almost 138 million mobile subscriptions in Pakistan, out of a population of almost 184 million people. While shutdowns are most often seen as a restriction on freedom of speech or association, an even wider range of human rights are at play in such situations.  IHRB’s project seeks to analyze the impact of network shutdowns on the less explored human rights areas of economic, social and cultural rights.  The study will look at the impact of shutdowns on members of society, including small business owners, schools, hospitals, and people in their day-to-day lives.

For example, during a network shutdown, injured people are unable to call emergency services, and emergency services are unable to communicate with people who may be trapped and in need of urgent care. Network shutdowns can cause panic as people are unable to assure friends and relatives of their safety. People may be unable to call for rescue in several other scenarios, such as during protest situations. Lack of access may have several other consequences, including rendering authorities unable to disseminate important information to move people to safety or to calm a concerned population. Equally important, human rights groups would be prevented from monitoring situations effectively.

An operational network is critical in helping support several important government functions necessary at a time of national crisis. Communications networks are necessary for the dissemination of accurate information and messages to appeal for calm. A functioning network can also be used for effective lawful interception systems that help law enforcement locate and track people who may be planning terrorist activity.  It must be emphasized that such lawful interception is only acceptable provided that officials are following the due process of law, after seeking proper court authorization and allowing sufficient oversight of the operation.

With respect to the private sector and individual activities, when communications are disrupted, many essential economic activities are also affected. Without network services, mobile banking transactions cannot take place, and in some countries, the poor often depend on mobile banking, as bank branches and ATMs may not be readily available. Similarly, small businesses may be unable to operate, thereby directly affecting livelihoods and the country’s economy. Students may not be able to access online materials needed for their education. Doctors may not be able to keep track of the latest health research or communicate patient records in real time with experts in other locations. These examples highlight how human rights, beyond freedom of speech and association, may be impacted as a result of network disruption.

Blocking mobile services is not a long-term solution for any country in its efforts to combat terrorism. The situation in Pakistan is both sensitive and complex. The aim of our research is to provide a clear analysis of the situation in the country and provide realistic recommendations for governments and companies that seek to safeguard national security without compromising access to communications or undermining human rights. Watch this space for project updates.


Featured Photo: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by killermonkeys

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.