An Expanding Digital Society: FN Launches Research On State Of Online Freedom In Pakistan

With the turn of the Century and the new Millennium, Pakistan has revolutionized itself by way of digital communications. Growth in telecom industry, convergence of technologies, expansion in media industry (about 100 local TV channels and 150 radio stations by end-2016), and a rapidly growing young population (120 million of the country’s estimated 200 million people are under the age of 25), a rapidly advancing Internet-using demographic (according to Pakistan Internet Landscape 2016 of Bytes for All, there were about 30 million broadband Internet users in early 2016), expanding bandwidth (improved 3G/4G and advanced services with over 26 million mobile Internet users[i]) and over 120 million mobile phone users are resulting in a digital realm that is bigger than the individual national size of over two-thirds of the individual countries in the world and makes Pakistan one of the largest digital societies of the world.
And yet, a country that has been ruled by the military for most of its political life, including recently up to 2008, and struggled for sustainable freedom of expression, coupled with the fact that it has simultaneously been negotiating for most part of the new Century a transition to a democratic polity while tackling extremism and terrorism, has meant that Pakistan has had to fight for greater openness, more freedom of expression and enabling political, legal and social environments for an increasingly wired and digital world. At the political level, continuing security and legal challenges in the offline sphere have meant that both freedom of expression and access to information restrictions also spill over into the online space in the country.
Identifying key challenges and solutions
Pakistan’s digital experiences of the first 15 years of the new Century reflect both pluses – outlined briefly above – in terms of numbers and communications landscape, and minuses, in terms of fundamental challenges that keep the country’s digital freedoms and under a cloud of uncertainty in the context of sustainability. This research review and analysis report aims to closely examine Pakistan’s digital realm and identify what the key challenges are that threaten digital rights and freedoms and what the relevant stakeholders can do to tackle these challenges and make these digital freedoms sustainable.
The methodology adopted for this analysis has been to identify key research studies on Pakistan’s digital spaces conducted by international and national organizations working on digital rights and produced over the preceding decade and review them to distill their findings and recommendations into specific categories. The benefit of this is a resulting overview of key challenges of, and their reiteration or alternative understanding of, the digital spaces in Pakistan, as well as feedback from experts and relevant stakeholders on how to tackle these challenges. More details of the methodology are given in the section titled ‘Disclaimer.’
This review and analysis report is the result of a detailed examination of the various research reports and studies and identified the following categories of primary challenges to digital rights in Pakistan:

  1. Freedom of expression
  2. Censorship
  3. Hate speech
  4. Surveillance
  5. Privacy

The secondary challenges include the attendant frameworks in Pakistan to the primary challenges and include the following:

  1. Lack of stakeholder consensus on protecting digital rights;
  1. Absence of a unifying ‘national charter of digital rights reforms’ that prioritizes key problems and their respective solutions;
  1. Absence of a consensus action plan that identifies primary and secondary stakeholders and duty bearing for each of them for the required and desirable reforms identified in the ‘charter of digital rights reforms’;
  1. Absence of an integrated legal framework on digital rights that uses international best practices to reconcile various existing media, communications and telecoms laws and regulations that are contradictory in nature;
  1. Through evolving research, advocacy, training and capacity building, raising awareness among key stakeholders about digital rights and how to protect them.

This exhaustive review and analysis study by Freedom Network of existing key research reports produced by a diverse array of reliable and relevant sources over the past 10 years makes available for the first time a broadsweep examination of the state of digital rights in Pakistan, key attendant challenges and detailed recommendations for specific relevant stakeholders on tackling these challenges.
This report uses both challenges and recommendations provided by the research reports (listed at the end of the report, along with the organizations that produced them) and distills them into categories and frameworks to provide a draft ‘charter of action’ on ‘digital rights reforms’ for various stakeholders.
Freedom Network appreciates and acknowledges the quality of research on digital rights in the country conducted by a number of renowned national and international organizations and hopes that this review report by bringing together and categorizing their key findings and recommendations provides both a cohesive examination of the state of digital rights in the country and an integrated response to the challenges that can make the digital society in Pakistan one of the most open, pluralistic and vibrant in the world, and sustainable.
[i] Pakistan’s Internet Landscape 2016, B4A
Click below link to download PDF version of Research Report

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