Freedom House released the Freedom on the Net (FoTN) report for the year 2018, titled “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism” globally. The report primarily focuses on developments that occurred between June 2017 and May 2018. The report finds that, out of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net, 26 experienced a deterioration in internet freedom and almost half of all declines were related to elections.
Pakistan report which is authored by Digital Rights Foundation, remains marked as “Not Free” for the coverage period. Internet freedom was marked with continuity of trends that were set in motion last year, and it declined in some aspects following some dramatic incidents of intimidation and violence related to online activities. Internet shutdowns, a problematic cybercrime law, and cyberattacks against political dissenters contributed to the ongoing deterioration.
Political speech is vulnerable to restriction as Pakistan entered the election year in 2018. Nighat Dad, the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, laments the lack of progress over the last one year in terms of internet freedoms: “We have seen the effects of the draconian laws and regulations that take root in an internet regulation culture where censorship and criminalization of political speech have led to harsh punishments and has become a norm all over.”During the reporting period, internet freedom was undermined on national security grounds, which justified a number of network shutdowns; one has remained in place for more than a year. And websites operated by a political party in Sindh province were blocked when officials accused members of violence and “anti-Pakistan” positions. The key findings of the report are:
- The continuation of internet shutdowns in the formerly known Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Balochistan.
- Nationwide blockage of social media websites in November 2017.
- Media blackout of dissent and social movement forces for criticizing the military establishment.
- Pronouncement of death sentences for online speech: awarding of the first death penalty in a blasphemy trial involving comments published on Facebook when a Christian man was sentenced to death for blasphemy for WhatsApp communications.
- Data breach of citizen’s data from the NADRA database with no enactment of a data protection law despite repeated assurances.
- Malware attacks on human rights defenders in the form of suspicious emails and private messages remained widespread.
- Cross-border cyberattacks between Pakistan and India remained prevalent. In early 2017 when tensions escalated between the two countries, hackers from both sides claimed to have compromised important state websites.
Digital Rights Foundation is a registered research-based advocacy non-governmental organization in Pakistan. Founded by Nighat Dad in 2012, DRF focuses on ICTs to support human rights, inclusiveness, democratic processes, and digital governance. DRF works on issues of online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.