Rights organisations, politicians, businesses, and international observers all cried foul as the federal caretaker government went back on its earlier assurances to keep internet services up and going.
Amnesty International made a statement one hour after polls closed at 5PM calling the barring of cellular services calling the decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on an election day “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
“It is reckless to impede access to information as people head out to polling stations on the heels of devastating bomb blasts and what has been an intense crackdown on the opposition in the lead up to the elections in the country,” said Livia Saccardi, Interim Deputy Director for South Asia at Amnesty International.
The shut down of the internet took place in suspicious circumstances on election day. Earlier, an order of the Sindh High Court had directed the government and the PTA to ensure uninterrupted internet services till the polling day. Despite this the caretaker interior minister had told a press conference that they would only shut down internet services if a certain district requested it because of the security situation.
However, voters all over the country woke up to cellular services being shut down which made life difficult for camp officers of different political parties, especially the PTI whose candidates are running as independents in this election.
The PTA had earlier said it had not yet received any instructions from the government regarding an internet shutdown and that internet services would work without any interruption on Thursday.
Because of this, many businesses and individuals whose livelihoods are attached to internet services also remained unable to go about their days.
One of the groups most immediately affected by internet shutdowns are gig workers. These are daily workers that earn their money on platforms such as Careem, Foodpanda, and Indrive. These people require stable internet access through mobile phone data to do their jobs. Over these days, Foodpanda and services such as Careem were out of service because their captains and riders had no way of accepting rides/orders or of following maps. To put things in context, there are over 13000 foodpanda and Bykea riders, 30,000 Uber and Careem captains, and around 12,000 Foodpanda home chefs whose daily wages are dependent on broadband data.
Similarly, the shutdowns also have a serious impact on freelancers. A large number of Pakistanis work for foreign clients remotely on platforms such as Fivver and Upwork providing services ranging from coding to content writing and search engine optimization. The gig-economy is an emerging sector in Pakistan. Freelancers in the country earned around $400 million in both 2021 and in 2022 which accounts for about 15% of Pakistan’s total $2.6 billion ICT (information-communication-technology) exports.
On top of this, Point of Sale (POS) machines, often known as debit/credit card machines, use sims to establish a network connection and make digital payments. The severance of mobile internet signals has rendered these machines temporarily obsolete, limiting everyone to cash payments only.
Back in May 2023 when former prime minister Imran Khan had been arrested, internet services had been shut down. Back then Reuters had reported that Pakistan’s main digital payment systems fell by around 50% the day after former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest. HBL, Pakistan’s largest bank, said that it had seen a decline of 60% in the throughput of the POS machines. At the same time, telecom operators estimated the extent of the damages to be Rs. 820 million. On the other hand, the government incurred a loss of approximately Rs. 287 million in tax revenue.