According to NetBlocks, internet blocking observatory, after Twitter stopped working across Pakistan between 10 p.m. on May 17 at 1.30 a.m. From May 18, 2020, Pakistan time, the bulk of complaints received from the country described a loss of access to the affected services. Pakistan's Media Matters for Democracy organization reports the cut and calls on the government to issue an official statement in that regard, clarifying whether Twitter was blocked and, if so, for what reason.
This incident merits clarity on part of the authorities, and we demand transparency from PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority) on whether inaccessibility of Twitter in Pakistan was by design and done on orders of the government.
This incident merits clarification by the authorities, and we demand transparency from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority as to whether Twitter's inaccessibility in Pakistan was on purpose and done on government orders.
NetBlocks data indicates that the particular video and image servers were not available during the outage period, corroborating the allegations. A preliminary test by OONI Probe suggests that the website was potentially blocked in the country. However, the reason for the blockade, which lasted at least four hours, is unclear.
In joint work with the Digital Rights Foundation of Pakistan, Netblocks analyzed the network data and confirmed that there was no international interruption at the time of the interruption:
📄 Report: Evidence of nation-scale Twitter, Periscope and Zoom disruption across #Pakistan on 17 May 2020.
Analysis of network data with @DigitalRightsPK confirms no international outage at time of disruption and establishes a timeline of events.https: //t.co/Geub2awRMD
– NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) May 18, 2020
Evidence of Twitter, Periscope and Zoom restrictions in Pakistan.
Data from the NetBlocks internet observatory network confirm that Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were restricted from multiple internet providers in Pakistan on the night of May 17, 2020, which started at approximately 18:30 UTC and lasted more than an hour..
📄 Report: Evidence of nationwide outage of Twitter, Periscope and Zoom in Pakistan on May 17, 2020.
Analysis of network data with Digital Rights Pakistan confirms that there was no international outage at the time of the interruption and establishes a timeline of events
Meanwhile in Pakistan, the label #TwitterDown (Twitter does not work) went viral on the microblogging platform, as people used private virtual networks to express their concern. A private virtual network is a technology that is primarily used to help people access websites that are blocked in the jurisdiction where they are.
Thank you @ForumSaath for organizing such a successful # SAATHVirtualConf2020 to discuss the most pressing issues of #Pakistan. Waiting for videos of the event as #TwitterDown for the period. More power to #SAATH @AWGoraya pic.twitter.com/wxHTOvlGRk
– Ayub Assak (@AyubAssak) May 17, 2020
Thank you to the South Asian Forum on Terrorism and for Human Rights for organizing such a successful virtual conference to discuss Pakistan's most pressing issues. We wait for videos of the conference while Twitter was not working. More power to the forum, Ahmad Waqass Goraya.
Twitter confirmed that there was no outage caused by it, nor did there appear to be indications of a server failure.
What generated the block?
That same day Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform, also faced technical problems, but before the blockade in Pakistan, the company released an update claiming that the problem was resolved.
No local outages were reported and Netblocks confirmed that the outage was restricted:
NetBlocks performance metrics from around the world show that Sunday’s disruption was localized to Pakistan.
NetBlocks performance metrics around the world show that the disruption on Sunday (May 17) was limited to Pakistan.
Many came to their own conclusions about the cause. For example, Pakistani politician Farhat Ullah Babar suggested that Twitter was blocked to attack a virtual conference organized by the South Asian Forum against Terrorism and in favor of Human Rights (SAATH):
The blocking was not universal, it was specifically for Pakistan. Most intriguingly it occurred just at scheduled time of # SAATHVirtualConf2020 to discuss state of human rights in Pakistan. PTA must come out clean. Parliament committee on IT please take notice https://t.co/e3cYCfRKdy
– Farhatullah Babar (@FarhatullahB) May 19, 2020
Disruption in Pakistan was not on the side of the company, says Twitter.
Netblocks confirms “slowdown” of Twitter and Periscope in Pakistan.
The data indicates that the image and video servers were not specifically available during the outage period.
Internet service providers say no blocking orders were issued, Pakistan Telecom Authority has yet to comment.
The blockade was not universal, it was specific to Pakistan. The most intriguing thing is that it happened at the time that the virtual conference of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority 2020 was scheduled to analyze the state of human rights in Pakistan. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority must be kept clean. Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, please note.
The Zoom collective conference, which was scheduled to start on Sunday, May 17 at 10 p.m. – precisely when the Twitter and Zoom interruptions took place – that he was going to dedicate himself to the problems of enforced disappearances, deaths of state authorities and deterioration of democracy in Pakistan.
Gul Bukhari, a Pakistani journalist living in the United Kingdom, is an active member of the South Asian Forum against Terrorism and for Human Rights. In 2018, Bukhari was kidnapped by Pakistan's infamous spy agency for her critical opinions. He told Global Voices in a call:
(The) SAATH Conference was planned as a virtual conference (to be) attended by prominent Pakistani human rights defenders, public intellectuals, journalists, scholars living in Pakistan, as well as those living in exile in different countries. When the conference began, people started looking for the link and that is when they noticed that Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were not working in Pakistan.
The forum conference was planned as a virtual conference attended by prominent Pakistani human rights defenders, public intellectuals, journalists, academics living in Pakistan, and those living in exile in different countries. When the conference started, people started looking for the link and it was there that they realized that Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were not working in Pakistan.
Bukhari said that many did not even know that the conference was taking place, the blockade caused him to have more attention:
It is time that the establishment understands that such tactics are counterproductive, especially in today's time when people can gain access to social media through VPNs and proxy websites to exercise their right to freedom of speech and get information.
It is time to understand that these tactics are counterproductive, especially in today's times when people access social media through private virtual networks and proxy websites to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to have information.
Digital censorship is not new in Pakistan
It is not the first time that such a blockade has occurred in the country. Previously, the authorities resorted to blocking the internet to contain information about public meetings organized by the Pashtun Tahafuz (PTM) movement. PTM requires basic rights for the Pashtun minority community, including the “right to live without fear” of extrajudicial courts. They have been meeting in different cities in Pakistan and faced frequent internet blocks. It is only when these meetings are over that videos and photos of these human rights protests are posted online.
According to Bukhari:
These attempts to muffle voices are not doing any good to the country; rather (they make) a laughing stock out of us on the international canvas.
These attempts to silence voices do my country no good, on the contrary, they make us laugh at the international canvas.
Naya Daur, a bilingual alternative news site we founded by Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, also had a Zoom conference scheduled for 10 p.m. May 18. Featuring speakers including academician and activist Ammar Ali Jan, reporter Benazir Shah, and Dr. Shah Jahan, the webinar was to explore possible solutions regarding public health and service, and to analyze the impact of the authority measures of the Monetary Fund. International and privatizations.
However, Rumi said the Twitter and Zoom interruptions did not affect the conference as authorities would have liked:
Naya Daur’s webinar was aimed at raise awareness and involve expatriate doctors. Thankfully, it continued despite the problems. But imagine if there were students online, using digital platforms or patients seeking medical advice, or others engaged in critical services. Such disruptions are troubling and counterproductive.
The Naya Daur webinar aimed to raise awareness and include foreign doctors. Happily, he continued despite the problems. But imagine if there were online students using digital platforms or patients seeking medical care or others in critical services. Those interruptions are troubling and counterproductive.
Rumi also believes that censorship and blockades are counterproductive:
The members of (the) SAATH conference and their followers created a Twitter storm claiming that the outage was designed to block their engagement with the Pakistani audiences. If this is true, it does not serve Pakistan’s public interest to muzzle dissenting opinions nor does it ‘improve’ Pakistan’s image abroad. The lesson from the unfortunate episode is clear: Instead of becoming invisible, the small digital conference and its proceedings were amplified.
Members of the South Asian Forum on Terrorism and Human Rights Forum conference and their followers created a storm on Twitter and said the disruption was made to block their participation with Pakistani audiences. If this is true, it is not in Pakistan's public interest to silence dissenting views or ‘enhance’ Pakistan's image abroad. The lesson of this unfortunate episode is clear: instead of becoming invisible, the small digital conference and its procedures were amplified.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is a state-owned company responsible for the regulation of establishment, operation and maintenance of telecommunications in Pakistan. So far, there are no statements from government officials in this regard.