Research Update: The Economic and Social Impacts of Network Disconnection in Pakistan

It was announced in September that 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, the NGO Bytes 4 All in Islamabad, Pakistan and the Center for Internet and Human Rights in Berlin. The following is an update on the research project.

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.

Following the introduction to the Economic and Social Impacts of Network Disconnection in Pakistan project in September, research is underway, and the first round of interviews and field research has been completed. Already, a picture is developing of how important mobile communications are in Pakistan, how people increasingly rely on them in day-to-day life, and how society is impacted when mobile networks are shut down. In October, an IHRB researcher spent three days at Telenor Pakistan headquarters in Islamabad interviewing senior staff about the policies and processes surrounding a network shutdown. It is clear that lessons have been learned over the years, in particular from the fallout of Vodafone’s network shut down during the Egyptian Revolution. There is much to learn from Telenor Pakistan’s approach and engagement with the government, something we look forward to detailing in the final case study.

Around the same time that IHRB conducted research at Telenor Pakistan’s headquarters, a representative of the Centre for Internet and Human Rights spent a week conducting initial scoping and training with Bytes 4 All. A questionnaire was developed over the summer regarding the impact of network shutdowns on people’s day to day lives and was tested over the Day of Ashura (November 3-4, 2014), an annual religious observance, when some mobile services were suspended. The questionnaire was available online following the shutdown. The responses were analysed and the questionnaire amended to enable Bytes 4 All researchers to respond in real time when the next shutdown occurs. In addition, additional stakeholder groups were identified in order to obtain the most relevant data, including hospitals, schools, and small businesses.

Word about the case study is spreading quickly, and interest in the study is building. In November, IHRB introduced the current work study at a development meeting convened by the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida) in Stockholm.  The concept was also discussed during an event convened by IHRB at Wilton Park, which was attended by Telenor, Bytes for All, and the Centre for Internet and Human Rights.

One of the most rewarding experiences so far has been exploring how stakeholders can work together to improve human rights. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which informs Telenor’s International Code of Conduct, businesses are required to conduct stakeholder engagement, which is designed to build relationships and mutual understanding between a company and its stakeholders. Often, stakeholder engagement can be tense and difficult, for example if a mine or oil pipeline is being built over community land. In the ICT sector, a different kind of stakeholder engagement and relationship is emerging in which the goals of companies and stakeholders are often aligned. In the case of network disconnection in Pakistan, both the companies and local civil society have the same aim: to reduce the frequency of network disconnection. Both are utilising their distinct skills and leverage to achieve this aim.  This alignment of goals has the potential to produce real and long-lasting action that will ultimately improve the enjoyment of human rights.

With the initial research and methodology completed for this project, the next phase is to collect data from impacted stakeholders during a network shutdown and present this in the case study, which is expected to be completed around March 2015. Complemented by the analysis of the policies and processes that accompany a network shutdown request, we anticipate the study to be of great use both in Pakistan and in other countries that experience network shutdowns.

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