Pakistan | Freedom House

Freedom on the Net


Freedom on the Net 2014
Population: 190.7 million
Internet Penetration: 11 percent
Social Media/ICT Apps Blocked: Yes
Political/Social Content Blocked: Yes
Bloggers/ICT Users Arrested: Yes
Press Freedom Status: Not Free
2014 Freedom On the Net Total (0 = Best, 100 = Worst) 69

2014 Scores

Freedom on the Net Status

Not Free

Freedom on the Net Total
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

(0 = Best, 100 = Worst)

Obstacles to Access
(0 = best, 25 = worst)

(0 = Best, 25 = Worst)

Limits on Content
(0 = best, 35 = worst)

(0 = Best, 35 = Worst)

Violations of User Rights
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

(0 = Best, 40 = Worst)
  • 2013 Freedom On the Net Total (0 = Best, 100 = Worst) 67
Key Developments: 

May 2013 - May 2014

  • Four women were brutally killed for using mobile technology in rural areas of Pakistan (see Violations of User Rights).
  • In April 2014, a judge in Punjab sentenced a Christian couple to death for blasphemy in relation to a text message they deny sending (see Violations of User Rights).
  • Lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot dead on May 7 after receiving threats for representing a professor jailed on charge of committing blasphemy on Facebook (see Violations of User Rights).
  • YouTube has been blocked since September 2012 while officials jockey to systematize control over the platform (see Limits on Content).
  • Authorities newly blocked film details referencing Baloch independence and a gay community website (see Limits on Content).
  • Citizen Lab researchers found Netsweeper technology automatically blocking political and social content on Pakistan’s largest ISP (see Limits on Content).
  • The Pakistan Protection Ordinance 2013 categorized unspecified “internet offenses” as terrorism, with suspects subject to arbitrary detention (see Violations of User Rights).

Pakistan saw a democratic change of power in May 2013, when citizens ousted the leftist Pakistan People’s Party led by former President Asif Ali Zardari in favor of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz party under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The newly elected government became the latest in a line of both military and civilian authorities to restrict information and communications technologies (ICTs). Human rights monitors accused them of bolstering military and police powers, instead of addressing past abuses.[1]

Though framed as necessary to combat terrorism and preserve Islam, censorship in Pakistan continues to reflect political motives or the influence of religious extremists. Religion also influenced a series of incidents which eroded user rights during the coverage period. At least four women were violently killed in rural areas of Pakistan for using digital technology, which their communities condemned as immoral. In the central province of Punjab, several people faced blasphemy charges based on SMS or Facebook messages, including one couple in their forties who were sentenced to the death penalty, though the phone they were accused of using was not in their possession. A lawyer defending another digital blasphemy suspect was fatally shot in his office for accepting the case.

The video-sharing platform YouTube has been completely blocked in Pakistan since September 2012, when an anti-Islamic video sparked unrest around the Muslim world. Before the election, opposition politician Anusha Rehman criticized the ban, but has yet to lift it since her appointment as IT minister. Challenged in two high courts and the subject of persistent protests, this far-reaching ban continues to affect ordinary internet users, small businesses, and students, though many used digital tools to circumvent it or migrated to other online video services. In June 2013, researchers at the Canada-based Citizen Lab documented a Canadian company, Netsweeper, already filtering political and social content on the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) network. Besides being Pakistan’s largest ISP, the government-owned PTCL controls a large percentage of the country’s internet backbone.

Other efforts could cement government control of Pakistan’s internet. Civil society groups said a pending 2014 cybercrimes act would disproportionately criminalize some online offences and give ill-defined and overbroad powers to a government-appointed authority. The downsides of this proposal were in stark relief during the coverage period of this report when another government-appointed body, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, was left without a chair or even a membership for several months thanks to a combination of disorganization, political power struggles, and allegations of wrongdoing. The disruption contributed to the late introduction of 3G and 4G mobile internet services, which, pending since 2011, were finally offered in May 2014.

Obstacles to Access: 

Internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 11 percent in 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Union.[2] A local report put the figure at 16 percent mid-year.[3] Mobile penetration was at 70 percent.[4] Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and cultural resistance have limited the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Pakistan.[5] While the cost of internet use has fallen considerably in the last few years,[6] and cost around US$12 a month for a broadband package, access remains out of reach for the majority of people in Pakistan, and most users go online at their workplace or school.

The internet service providers (ISPs) association listed 50 operational in Pakistan in 2014.[7] Fourteen offer high-speed broadband.[8] The government regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), exerts significant control over internet and mobile providers through a bureaucratic process that includes hefty licensing fees.[9]

Broadband subscriptions, based on DSL—which uses existing telephone networks—or wireless WiMax technology, are concentrated in urban areas. The majority government-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) controls 60 percent of the broadband market.[10] It also owns the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE), having three main nodes in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore, with 42 smaller nodes nationwide. PIE operated the nation’s sole internet backbone until 2009, when additional bandwidth was offered by TransWorld Associates on its private fiber-optic cable, TW1.[11] PTCL controls access to the undersea fiber-optic cables SEA-ME-WE 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4, named for connecting South-East Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe, and I-ME-WE, between India, the Middle East and Western Europe.[12] In the past, damage to these cables disrupted half of the country’s connections.[13]

Most remote areas lack broadband, and a large number of users depend on slow dial-up connections or EDGE, an early mobile internet technology. Meaningful online activity like multimedia training can be challenging. Conflict-stricken areas like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North West Frontier Province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have significantly poorer internet access.[14] Pakistan as a whole faced electricity shortfalls throughout 2013 and early 2014,[15] resulting in outages lasting several hours across the country, lasting as long as 20 hours a day in rural areas. A 2006 Universal Service Fund promised to establish telecommunications centers in rural areas with more than 5,000 inhabitants, among other initiatives.[16] However, contracts for building the centers were cancelled without public explanation and are being re-auctioned.[17]

Administrative hurdles long stymied the introduction of an internet-capable 3G mobile network. First mooted in 2011, 3G and 4G auctions remain stalled due to bureaucratic processes. The National Assembly said the PTA under former head Mohammed Yaseen had mishandled the initial auction of 3G licenses, and cancelled them in late 2012.[18] Yaseen’s term expired that year, and the Lahore High Court annulled the appointment of his success or Farooq Awan on technical grounds in early 2013, even as terms expired for the body’s other two members.[19] A new chair, Ismail Shah, was appointed nine months later.[20] In December, Shah announced plans to auction 3G and 4G licenses by March 2014.[21] Bids were accepted in April, and mobile operators began offering faster service in May, though coverage is limited to a few urban centers.

Mobile operators Mobilink, Ufone, Telenor, Warid, and Zong still struggle to attract customers due to high prices and poor coverage. Wireless service providers using the high-capacity data network WiMAX or high-speed broadband technology EVDO are also considered expensive.

Telecommunications providers in Pakistan also suffer from periodic government-mandated service disruptions. During 2012 Pakistan Day celebrations, mobile service was cut “to implement national security policy” in the southern province of Balochistan,[22] where a conflict between Baloch nationalists and state security forces or antiseparatist militias has persisted since 1948. At least one local official denied security concerns and characterized the shutdown as routine maintenance,[23] but many Baloch people saw the move as discriminatory.[24] Urban areas nationwide saw similar interventions in 2012 and 2013, and in the past year, the new government disappointed businesses and civil society groups by maintaining the same tactics. Mobile service in 80 cities around the country was interrupted during a religious procession on November 14, 2013.[25] To thwart sectarian violence, network services were also suspended in major urban cities during a religious event celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on January 14, 2014.[26]

Internet cafes do not require a license to operate, and opening one is relatively easy.[27] This freedom is occasionally threatened at the local level. In 2012, the provincial cabinet in Punjab approved a law which some analysts said would oblige cafe owners to register their businesses, among other requirements.[28]  Provincial elections in May 2013 reshuffled the local administration and the law was never implemented. In October 2013, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government ordered local police to keep records of cybercafe users and data, and recommended cafes install hidden cameras to monitor people sending threatening emails.[29]

The PTA is the regulatory body for the internet and mobile industry, and international free expression groups and experts have serious reservations about its openness and independence.[30] The prime minister appoints the chair and members of the three-person authority, which reports to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication.[31] The repeated failure to make these appointments in the past year further undermined the PTA’s reputation.

Limits on Content: 

YouTube remained blocked since ISPs blocked it on government orders in September 2012. The new administration said Google would launch a local version of the site which would be required to censor objectionable content, but the status of this plan—and the extent of Google’s cooperation—remains in doubt. In the meantime, even as officials cited the absence of automated filtering technology in Pakistan as a rationale for maintaining the block, the Canadian company Netsweeper was documented implementing filters on the government-controlled ISP, PTCL. While civil society opposition partially succeeded in staving off additional blocks on VoIP applications and the movie website IMDb during the coverage period, the lack of transparency surrounding this secretive and far more systematic censorship bodes ill for their ability to keep limits on content in check going forward.

Since January 2003, the government of Pakistan has censored some online content, and the system for doing so is becoming increasingly sophisticated, though it lacks an adequate legislative framework.[32] A variety of government agencies are involved, but the PTA is the primary authority. The Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Web Sites (IMCEW) established in 2006 includes PTA and governmental representatives, as well as “men from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Inter-Services Intelligence, and Military Intelligence.”[33]

A range of overbroad provisions in the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act support censorship for the protection of national security or religious reasons.[34] Authorities also cite Section 99 of the penal code, which allows the government to restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest, to justify filtering antimilitary, blasphemous, or antistate content.[35] Critics believe these issues can serve as a cover for politically motivated censorship of dissenting voices. Information perceived as damaging to the image of the military or top politicians, for example, is also targeted. A satirical music video about military generals was replaced on video-sharing site Vimeo by a page telling viewers it was “prohibited” within Pakistan in mid-2013.[36] Besides blocking, the PTA issues takedown orders involving banned content. Twitter removed allegedly blasphemous posts at the government’s request in 2014, though restored at least some on review.[37]

Historically, the PTA has directed ISPs and backbone providers to implement manual blocks on individual URLs or IP addresses, their compliance ensured by licensing conditions.[38] Since 2012, successive administrations have sought to introduce technical filtering.[39] The National ICT Research and Development Fund initially requested companies develop nationwide blocking technology to “handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs,”[40] though the status of that project was left in doubt after widespread civil society protests.[41] News reports in 2013 and 2014 said PTA and government officials were still pursuing filtering solutions.[42]

In June 2013, the University of Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab reported that technology developed by the Canadian company Netsweeper was already filtering political and social content at the national level on the PTCL network.[43]“In addition to using Netsweeper technology to block websites, ISPs also use other less-transparent methods, such as DNS tampering,” Citizen Lab noted.[44] The report highlighted the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding censorship in Pakistan as it becomes more advanced.

The same lack of transparency extends to the content affected by censorship, which is often inconsistent based on location or across ISPs.[45] There are no published guidelines outlining why content is blocked or how to appeal. Individuals and groups can also initiate censorship by petitioning courts to enact moral bans on online or traditional media content.[46]

Censorship targeting pornography can affect access to legitimate content like Scarleteen, a U.S.-based sex education website for teenagers.[47] In May 2013, Pakistani Twitter users reported they could not access the social media platform Tumblr, which Netsweeper filters frequently flag for pornographic content.[48] In September 2013, the PTA confirmed that it had ordered a block on Queer Pakistan, the country’s first ever website for the queer, transgender and bisexual community to communicate anonymously, just months after its launch.[49] Some users found Google Scholar search results for terms like breast anatomy or breast cancer also appeared to be blocked on the PTCL network in 2014.

Blocks increased in early 2014. Net users around the country reported different sites were temporarily inaccessible, including the UK-based Guardian newspaper, Gawker, Storify, and some online games.[50] The blocks were never explained, though hundreds of social media users complained.

Blocking frequently targets social media and communication apps, and different religious groups persistently pressure the Pakistani courts to ban Facebook completely.[51] Groups and individuals affiliated with political and religious causes have also filed court petitions against YouTube.[52] In September 2012, the information ministry instituted a site-wide block on YouTube in response to the anti-Islamic video “The Innocence of Muslims.”[53] Another 20,000 websites were also blocked, either for featuring the video or for hosting material that the PTA characterized as “objectionable.”[54] YouTube was unblocked very briefly in December 2012 until a broadcast journalist demonstrated that the offensive clip was still available.[55]

Civil society groups protested against the YouTube ban, and in 2013, petitioners challenged it in the high courts in Lahore and Peshawar.[56] Hearings in both cases are ongoing. In Lahore, the deliberations centered on the possibility of localizing YouTube, so it would become subject to domestic content restrictions. News reports said Google, which owns the platform, declined to establish a local office because of the lack of intermediary liability protection for content providers under Pakistani law.[57] In December, Anusha Rehman said the PTA was drafting an ordinance protecting Google from legal responsibility if internet users uploaded blasphemous content.[58] The ordinance has not been made public and its scope is not known. Once it is complete, however, “Google will easily be able to block blasphemous content on the request of the Pakistan government,” Rehman said, though it was not clear if the company had agreed to do so.[59] YouTube remained inaccessible through May 2014.

Political dissent and secessionist movements in areas including Balochistan and Sindh province, where a Sindhi nationalist movement advocates for political divisions along ethnic lines, is among the nation’s most systematically censored content.[60] On November 19, 2013, the PTA requested that ISPs block the international website IMDb (Internet Movie Database), an order they reversed after two days.[61] Analysts said the apparent ban—which attracted widespread criticism on social media—was related to the upcoming release of a British short film, “The Line on Freedom,” a fictional depiction of Pakistani security agencies abducting Baloch separatists.[62] In 2014, IMDb was largely accessible again, yet the page documenting “The Line on Freedom” was still blocked. Pages relating to the movie are also inaccessible on other sites, including Vimeo.[63]

While most other social networking and blog hosting platforms were available and widely used throughout 2013 and early 2014, VoIP applications came under threat in Sindh during an antiterror campaign. On October 3, the local administration—run by the now-opposition Pakistan People’s Party—requested the federal government implement a three-month localized ban on services such as Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, and Tango to limit their use by “criminal elements.”[64] The plan—which was blocked by federal authorities and never publicly implemented—triggered protests among civil society and internet users, and locals called it discriminatory.[65] Voice calls on Viber became briefly inaccessible nationwide the same month, but it was not clear if the service had been intentionally disrupted.[66]

Authorities also target users seeking to access blocked content. In 2011, the PTA sent a legal notice to all ISPs in the country urging them to report customers using encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs)[67]—technology that allows internet users to go interact online undetected and access blocked websites—to curb communication between terrorists.[68] International and civil society organizations in Pakistan protested,[69] and the tools remain widely used to access YouTube.[70] Two of the best-known services, Spotflux and HotSpot VPN, became inaccessible in January 2014, and Spotflux said the government had actively blocked its services.[71] Both were later restored.

Despite existing limitations on online content—and looming new ones—Pakistanis have relatively open access to international news organizations and other independent media, as well as a range of websites representing Pakistani political parties, local civil society groups, and international human rights organizations.[72] ICTs, particularly mobile phones, promote social mobilization. The 2010 floods in Pakistan, for example, inspired many Pakistani citizens and members of the diaspora to mobilize and raise funds online.[73] Nevertheless, most online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, separatist movements, and women’s and LGBT rights.

In May 2013, reports of election rigging spread via Facebook and Twitter, prompting traditional media coverage.[74] Voters from around the major urban cities reported incidents live from their polling stations. While many failed to turn in to anything tangible, a plethora of users in Karachi reported ballot-rigging using videos and photos, then mounted a successful offline protest. In response, the Election Commission called a recount in over 40 polling stations in the city’s largest constituency.[75]

Violations of User Rights: 

User rights experience a steep decline during the coverage period, mostly stemming from religious intolerance. Four women were killed by male family members in rural areas of Pakistan, one for possessing a mobile phone, and three for featuring in a video circulating on community mobile networks. Three men were murdered for being gay by a man who used social media to identify their sexual orientation. Blasphemy charges for digital content spiked In Punjab, where a judge sentenced a Christian couple to the death penalty for an allegedly blasphemous text message they denied sending, and a lawyer was shot dead for his work defending another user in a blasphemy case related to Facebook. Problematic laws were also being debated during the coverage period, including the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, which listed unspecified “internet offenses” as acts of terror.

Article 19 of the Pakistani constitution establishes freedom of speech as a fundamental right, although it is subject to several restrictions.[76] Pakistan became a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2010.[77]

A controversial counterterrorism law, the Pakistan Protection Ordinance, was promulgated by President Mamnoon Hussain on October 31, 2013. An executive order subject to parliamentary review, it was amended in January 2014 and approved by the National Assembly in April, when opposition politicians staged a walk-out in protest. Freedom of expression advocates were concerned by the draft’s inclusion of unspecified “internet offenses” as terrorist acts, with suspects potentially subject to arbitrary arrest or extrajudicial execution.[78] The Senate did not approve the ordinance, and the National Assembly subsequently approved a resolution to extend it for 120 days, effective at the end of the coverage period on May 22, 2014. With some reformulation, it was passed as the Pakistan Protection Act in August.[79] One news report said the interior ministry issued a separate order putting the ordinance in effect from December 5, 2013.

The Surveying and Mapping Act, 2014, first introduced in 2012, limits digital mapping activity to organizations registered with the governmental authority Survey of Pakistan, with federal permission required for mapping collaboration with foreign companies. The Senate approved it in June 2014, outside the coverage period of this report.[80]

Existing laws also have the potential to restrict internet users. The 2004 Defamation Act allows for imprisonment of up to five years, and observers fear a chilling effect if it is used to launch court cases for online expression. Section 124 of the penal code on sedition “by words” or “visible representation” is broadly worded, though it has yet to be applied in an online context.[81]

Section 295(c) of the penal code, which covers blasphemy, is frequently invoked to limit freedom of expression. Any citizen can file a blasphemy complaint against any other, and human rights groups say charges have been abused in the past to settle personal vendettas. The imputation of blasphemy leaves the accused vulnerable to reprisals, regardless of whether it has foundation. Some cases have involved electronic media.

Blasphemy charges for digital content saw an alarming spike in the central province of Punjab in 2013 and 2014. On May 7, 2014, Rashid Rehman, the defense lawyer in another digital blasphemy case in Punjab was shot dead in his office by unidentified assailants after receiving multiple death threats in relation to the case, including in court from lawyers for the prosecution. He was defending Junaid Hafeez, an English professor and former Fulbright scholar jailed since 2013 for alleged blasphemy on Facebook, a charge based on an unsupported accusation by a religious group.[82]

In April 2014, the Pakistan Today newspaper reported that a judge had found a Christian couple guilty of sending a blasphemous text message to local Muslims, and sentenced them to the death penalty. Their defense lawyer said the phone they were accused of using had been lost. Police detained Shafqat Emmanuel, a disabled man, and his wife Shagufta Kausar, a cleaner, along with their four children, in June 2013. Their lawyer told the newspaper the sentence was not based on concrete evidence, but “a receipt of a cellular company on which Shagufta’s national identity card number was written against the number.”[83] They are appealing the sentence, which is unlikely to be enforced.[84]

In November 2013, a religious leader in Punjab accused an unemployed 25-year-old man in his village of blasphemy for allegedly sharing objectionable content on Facebook.[85] No details of the alleged post were publicized. The man was arrested, and no trial was subsequently reported, though he remained in detention, according to a journalist familiar with the case.[86] That charge came during a period of heightened religious tensions when, in the wake of several clashes, the federal government warned against “propagating religious sectarianism through social media or mobile phones.”[87] At least one other blasphemy case based on a Facebook post was pending in a court in south Punjab at the end of the coverage period of this report.[88]

Government surveillance is a concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives, as well as ordinary internet users. Pakistani authorities, particularly intelligence agencies, appear to have been expanding their monitoring activities in recent years, while provincial officials have been exerting pressure on the central government to grant local police forces greater surveillance powers and location tracking abilities, ostensibly to curb terrorism and violent crimes.[89]

In 2013 the upper house of parliament passed the Fair Trial Act,[90] allowing security agencies to seek a judicial warrant to monitor private communications “to neutralize and prevent [a] threat or any attempt to carry out scheduled offenses.” It covers information sent from or received in Pakistan or between Pakistani citizens whether they are resident in the country or not.[91] Critics say that the act’s wording leaves it open to abuse, though none has been publicly reported.[92] Under the law, service providers face a one-year jail term or a fine of up to PKR 10 million ($103,000) for failing to cooperate with warrants. While the requirement for a warrant is positive, one can be issued if a law enforcement official has “reason to believe” in a terrorism risk; it can also be temporarily waived by intelligence agencies.[93]

ISPs, telecommunications companies, and SIM card vendors are required to authenticate the Computerized National Identity Card details of prospective customers with the National Database Registration Authority before providing service.[94] As of April 2014, SIM cards in Sindh and Balochistan could only be activated through biometric verification using the customer’s fingerprint, according to a PTA media advertisement, though observers said retail stores lacked the necessary equipment.[95] The requirement was extended to the rest of the country in summer 2014.[96] 

A 2007 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance requiring telecommunications companies to retain user traffic data for a minimum of 90 days, and share logs of customer communications with security agencies when directed by the PTA, expired in 2009, though the practices reportedly continued.[97] A draft Prevention of Electronics Crimes Act 2014, though it contains some procedural safeguards for cybercrime investigation by law enforcement agencies, could grant intelligence agencies unrestricted mass surveillance powers.[98] Critics said it lacked clear definitions, while criminalizing some specific activity like “defamation of women.” [99] Civil society groups recommended it be amended in accordance with international standards.

In 2013, a report by Citizen Lab indicated that Pakistani citizens may be vulnerable to oversight through a software tool present in the country. FinFisher’s “Governmental IT Intrusion and Remote Monitoring Solutions” package includes the FinSpy tool, which attacks the victim’s machine with malware to collect data including Skype audio, key logs, and screenshots.[100] The analysis found FinFisher’s command and control servers in 36 countries globally, including Pakistan, on the PTCL network. This does not confirm that actors in Pakistan are knowingly taking advantage of its capabilities. Nevertheless, civil society organizations called on PTCL to investigate and disable FinFisher tools.[101] Pakistan has separately been reported to be a customer of Narus, a U.S.-based firm known for designing technology that allows for deep-packet inspection of internet communications.[102] Some media reports say Pakistani authorities have acquired surveillance technology from China.

Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for traditional journalists, with five killed in relation to their work in 2013.[103] Violence has yet to affect online journalists in the same way, though they can also be vulnerable. In particular, violence against women thought to have brought shame on their communities—including honor killings—has begun to involve ICT usage. In one high-profile case from 2012, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai in the head while she was traveling in a school van in the Swat region, partly in retaliation for blogging.[104] She survived and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

At least four women were killed for reasons involving technology in rural areas of Pakistan during the coverage period of this report. In June 2013, Arifa Bibi, a mother of two, was stoned to death by local men after a tribal court in the Dera Ghazi Khan region of Punjab convicted her of possessing a mobile phone.[105] The same month, a group of men fatally shot a mother and two daughters in Gilgit Baltistan, a far-northern region bordering Afghanistan. A video of the women playing in the rain had been circulating on local mobile networks.[106] News reports said family members of the victims were involved in carrying out both incidents.

In April 2014, a man confessed to killing three men he had identified as gay via interactions on social media. Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan, so digital communication arguably facilitated his selection of targets.[107]

Militant Islamic groups have launched attacks on cybercafes and mobile phone stores in the past for encouraging moral degradation.[108] None were documented during the coverage period of this report.[109]

Free expression activists and bloggers have also reported receiving death threats. Many publicize them—and sometimes attract more—on Twitter. Most are sent via text message from untraceable, unregistered mobile phone connections, often originating from the tribal areas of the country, and several include specific details from the recipient’s social media profiles or other online activity. Human rights activist Sabeen Mehmood received death threats in 2013 after opposing an anti-Valentine’s day campaign by a religious group earlier in the year.[110]

Technical attacks against the websites of nongovernmental organizations, opposition groups, and activists are common in Pakistan but typically go unreported due to self-censorship. Minority organizations such as the Catholic-run human rights advocacy group National Commission for Justice and Peace have also been subject to technical attacks. The websites of government agencies are also commonly attacked, often by ideological hackers attempting to make a political statement. In one example, an unidentified hacker defaced the electoral commission’s website in advance of elections.[111]


[1] “Protection of Pakistan Ord enforced”, The Nation, December 15, 2013,

[2] International Telecommunication Union, “Percentage of Individuals Using the Internet, 2000-2013,”

[3]“30m Internet Users in Pakistan, Half on Mobile: Report,” Express Tribune, June 24, 2013,

[4] International Telecommunication Union, “Mobile-cellular Telephone Subscriptions, 2000-2013.”

[5] A. Khan, Gender Dimensions of the Information Communication Technologies for Development (Karlstad: University of Karlstad Press, 2011). Available at SSRN:

[6]“Incentive Package,” Knowledge Management, accessed August 2012,

[9]Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, “Functions and Responsibilities,” December 24, 2004,

[10]Citizen Lab, “O Pakistan, We Stand on Guard for Thee: An Analysis of Canada-based Net sweeper’s Role in Pakistan’s Censorship Regime,” June 20, 2013,

[11]OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan,” August 6, 2012,

[12]“PTCL Expects 20pc Growth with Launch of IMEWE Cable: Official,” The News, December 22, 2010,

[13] Farooq Baloch, “Undersea Cable Cut Affects 50% of Pakistan's Internet Traffic,” Express Tribune, March 27, 2013,

[14]Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Lights out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” The News,

[15]“Khawaja Asif Urges People to Bear Load Shedding with Patience,” Pakistan Today, June 30, 2013,

[16]Ministry of Information Technology, “Universal Service Fund,” accessed July 2013,

[17] Ministry of Information Technology, “Universal Telecentres—Pilot Project,” accessed July 2013,

[18]“3G Licenses Auction: NA Committee Holds PTA Responsible for Rules’ Violation,” Dawn News, December 31, 2012,

[19]Farooq Baloch, “Govt Misses SC’s 3G Auction Deadline for Appointing PTA Members, Chairman,” Express Tribune, September 15, 2013,

[20] Jamal Shahid, “PTA gets fulltime chairman after 9 months,” Dawn, November 14, 2014,;

Pakistan to Auction Licenses for 3G-4G Mobile Services by March, Bloomberg, December 20, 2013,

[22]ZahidGishkori, “Security: Cell Phone Services in Balochistan Suspended on Pakistan Day,” Express Tribune, March 23, 2012,

[23] “Security concerns’: On Pakistan Day, Balochistan blacked out,” Express Tribune, March 24, 2012,

[24] “Baluchistan: Access Should Not Be A Victim To National Security,” Bolo Bhi, August 14, 2012,

[25] “Mobile phone services suspended in more than 80 cities,” The News, November 14, 2013,

[26] “Mobile phone services suspended; security beefed up”,

[27] Sehrish Wasif, “Dens of Sleaze,” Express Tribune, July 22, 2010,

[28]Office of the Chief Minister of Punjab, “Provincial Cabinet Sanctions Net Café Regulations Act,” January 14, 2012, Mehwish Shan, “Punjab to Regulate Internet Cafes,” Pro Pakistani, December 21, 2011,

[29] “KP police told to keep check on internet cafes,” Pakistan Today, October 2013,  

[30] Article 19, “Legal Analysis – Pakistan: Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act,” February 2, 2012,

[31] Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, “Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996,” October 17, 1996,

[32] OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan,” December 26, 2010,

[33] Ali Sethi, “Banistan: Why Is YouTube Still Blocked In Pakistan?” New Yorker, August 7, 2013,

[34] Article 19, “Legal Analysis – Pakistan.”

[35]“Pakistan: Code of Criminal Procedure,” available at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development website, accessed August 2013,

[36] “Song Critical of Pakistani Generals is Blocked Online, With No Official Explanation,” New York Times, May 4, 2013,

[38] Article 23 of PTA Act 1996 says “Where a licensee contravenes any provision of this Act or the rules made thereunder or any term or condition of the license, the Authority may by a written notice require the licensee to show cause within thirty days as to why an enforcement order may not be issued.

(3) Where a licensee fails to— 

(a) respond to the notice referred to in sub-section (1); or 

(b) satisfy the Authority [or any of its officers not below the rank of Director]41 about the alleged contravention; or 

(c) remedy the contravention within the time allowed by the Authority, [ [or any of its officers not below the rank of Director]42, the Authority[or any of its officers not below the rank of director]43, may, by an order in writing and giving reasons— 

(i) levy fine which may extend to three hundred and fifty million rupees; or 

(ii) suspend or terminate the license, impose additional conditions or appoint an Administrator to manage the affairs of the licensee, but only if the contravention is grave or persistent.

[39] Danny O’Brien, “Pakistan's Excessive Internet Censorship Plans,” CPJ Internet Channel, March 1, 2012,

[40] National ICT Research and Development Fund, “Request for Proposal: National URL Filtering and Blocking System,” accessed August 2012,; National ICT Research and Development Fund, “Request for Proposal;” “PTA Determined to Block Websites with ‘Objectionable’ Content,” Express Tribune, March 9, 2012,

[41] Shahbaz Rana, “IT Ministry Shelves Plan to Install Massive URL Blocking System,” Express Tribune, March 19, 2012,

[42] Anwer Abbas, “PTA, IT Ministry at Odds Over Internet Censorship System,” January 3, 2013,; Apurva Chaudhary, “Pakistan To Unblock YouTube After Building Filtering Mechanism,” Medianama, January 10, 2013,; Pakistan Press Foundation, “The Saga of YouTube Ban,” January 2, 2013,; “Ministry Wants Treaty, Law to Block Blasphemous Content,” The News International, March 28, 2013, Press of Pakistan, “IT Minister Plans to Ban 'Objectionable Content' Across Entire Internet,” via Express Tribune,

[43] Citizen Lab, “O Pakistan.”

[44] DNS tampering intercepts the user’s request to visit a functioning website and returns an error message.

[45] OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan,” August 6, 2012,

[46]“Internet censorship: Court Asked to Ban Inappropriate Content,” Express Tribune, June 14, 2011,

[48] Citizen Lab, “O Pakistan.”

[49] “Pakistan Blocks First Gay Website, Deeming It 'Un-Islamic'”, September 26, 2013,

[50] “The Guardian website inaccessible in parts of Pakistan,” Express Tribune, February 3, 2014,

[51]“Permanently Banning Facebook: Court Seeks Record of Previous Petitions,” Express Tribune, May 6, 2011,

[52] “Access Denied: As YouTube Remains Blocked, SHC Dismisses Plea for Ban,” Express Tribune, March 29, 2013,

[53] Ian Lovett, “Man Linked to Film in Protests Is Questioned,” New York Times, September 15, 2012,; Michael Joseph Gross, “Disaster Movie,” Vanity Fair, December 27, 2012,; “YouTube blocked in Pakistan,” The News International, September 17, 2012,

[54] “In Massive Censorship Move, Pakistan Blocks 20,000 “Objectionable” Sites,” The Daily Dot, October 9, 2012,

[55] Umar Farooq, “Pakistan Courts YouTube Comeback,” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2013,

[56] Dawn, “YouTube Ban Challenged in PHC,” May 14, 2013,; Sumaira Jajja, “YouTube Ban: Google to Appear Before Lahore High Court,” Dawn, May 15, 2013,

[57] Sumaira Jajja, “YouTube ban.”

[58] Dawn, “Google May Localize YouTube for Pakistani Users”, December 10, 2013,

[59] Bolo Bhi, “Don’t Make Localization a One-Stop Shop for Censorship,” December 11, 2013,

[60] Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, “Blocking of Websites Access,” letter, April 25, 2006,

[61] “Climbdown: PTA Restores IMDb Access After Public Outcry,” Express Tribune, November 23, 2013,; Nighat Dad, “Why was IMDb Blocked?” Express Tribune, November 23, 2013,

[62] IMDb, “The Line of Freedom,”

[63] Digital Rights Foundation, “First Case of Selective / Targeted Online Censorship: Pakistani Government Successfully Blocks Specific Links,” November 25, 2013,

[64] Faraz Israr, “Sindh to ban Skype, Viber, Tango,” The Nation, October 4, 2013,

[65] Irfan Ahmed, “Skype Gets Dark in Karachi,” Inter Press Service, October 18, 2013,

[67] Josh Halliday and Saeed Shah, “Pakistan to Ban Encryption Software,” Guardian, August 30, 2011,

[68] Nighat Dad, “Pakistan Needs Comms Security Not Restrictions,” Privacy International (blog), September 12, 2011,

[69] Barbora Bukovska, “Pakistan: Ban on Internet Encryption a Violation of Freedom of Expression,” Article 19, September 2, 2011,

[70] The VPN blocking in Pakistan is taking place under the section 5(2)(b) of PTA Act 1996 and the same provision was used as justification for the “Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulation under which the current VPN blocking is happening. See,

[71] Spotflux claims its service is being 'actively blocked' in Pakistan, January 28, 2014

[72] OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan” (2012).

[73] Issam Ahmed, “Pakistan Floods: How New Networks of Pakistanis are Mobilizing to Help,” Christian Science Monitor, August 19, 2010,

[74] Mehwish Khan, “15 Election Rigging Videos From Pakistan That Went Viral on Social Media!,” Pro Pakistani, May 11, 2013,

[75] “Post-poll protest: PTI supporters take to the streets”,

[76] “The Constitution of Pakistan,” available at Pakistani, accessed September 2012,

[77] “President Signs Convention on Civil, Political Rights,” Daily Times, June 4, 2010,

[79] Bolo Bhi, “Human Rights Experts: Pakistan Could Become a “Police State” Under Protection Ordinance,” Global Voices Advocacy, August 13, 2014,

[80] Nighat Dad, “Pakistan Considering Bill that Would Ban Independent Mapping Projects,” TechPresident, November 28, 2012,;

[81] “Pakistan Penal Code,” available at Pakistani, accessed August 2013,

[82] Ali Sethi, “Pakistan’s Tyranny of Blasphemy,” New York Times, May 21, 2014,; Andrew Buncombe, “Rashid Rehman shooting: Pakistan human rights lawyer who received 'death threats' over high-profile blasphemy case is shot dead,” Independent, May 8, 2014,

[83] Digital Rights Foundation, “Blasphemy in the Digital Age,” graphic,; “Couple gets death over 'blasphemous' text message,” Agence France-Presse, via Express Tribune, April 5, 2014,;

[84] “Pakistani couple get death sentences for blasphemy,” BBC News, April 5, 2014,

[85] Digital Rights Foundation, “Blasphemy Charge Over Facebook Comment – A Dangerous Precedent,” November 19, 2013,; “Youth Booked Over ‘Cyber Crime,’” Dawn, November 19,2013,

[86] Interview, April 2014.

[87] Press Trust of India, “Pak Man Arrested for Sharing Blasphemous Content on Facebook,” via Times of India, November 20, 2013,

[88] Court documents reviewed by the author.

[89]Masroor Afzal Pasha, “Sindh Police To Get Mobile Tracking Technology,” Daily Times, October 29, 2010,; “Punjab Police Lack Facility of ‘Phone Locator’, PA Told,” The News International, January 12, 2011,

[90]“Senate Passes ‘Fair Trial Bill,’” Dawn, February 1, 2013,; The Gazette of Pakistan, “Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013,” February 22, 2013,

[91] Yasir Rehman, “Fair Trial Act Gives Pakistan Authorities Wiretapping Powers,” Central Asia Online, December 28, 2012,

[92]The laws covers the Inter-Services Intelligence, the police, Intelligence Bureau and the three military intelligence agencies. See, Digital Rights Foundation, “Fair Trial Bill is an Official Intrusion on Privacy: Digital Rights Foundation,” December 22, 2012,

[93] Waris Husain, “The Fair Trial Act and lessons from the US,” Express Tribune, May 27, 2013,

[94] National Database Registration Authority, “Verification of CNICs: Nadra Signs Contract with Three Cell Phone Companies,” July 29, 2009,; Bilal Sarwari, “SIM Activation New Procedure,” Pak Telecom, September 3, 2010,

[95] Abrar Hamza, “SIMs will only be activated after biometric verification after 31st,” Daily Times, March 28, 2014,

[96] Telenor, “SIM sales in Pakistan only through Biometric Verification from 1st August, 2014,”; Mobilink, “Mobilink expands the largest footprint of Biometric Verification System across Pakistan,” press release, January 3, 2014,

[97]Kelly O’Connell, “INTERNET LAW – Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance, 2007,” Internet Business Law Services, April 14, 2008,

[98] This data includes the “communication’s origin, destination, route, time, data, size, duration or type of underlying service.”

[100] Morgan Marquis-Boire et al, “For Their Eyes Only,” Citizen Lab, May 1, 2013,

[101] Digital Rights Foundation, “Global Coalition Of NGOs Call To Investigate & Disable FinFisher’s Espionage Equipment in Pakistan,” May 3, 2013,

[102] Timothy Carr, “One U.S. Corporation’s Role in Egypt’s Brutal Crackdown,” Huffington Post, January 28, 2011,; “Narus: Security Through Surveillance,” Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, November 11, 2008,

[103] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Journalists Killed in Pakistan,” accessed January 2014,

[104] “Diary of a Pakistani School Girl,” BBC News, February 9, 2009,; Marie Brenner, “The Target,” Vanity Fair, April 2013,

[105] “Woman Stoned to Death on Panchayat’s Orders,” Pakistan Today, July 10, 2013,; Emma Batha, “Special Report: The Punishment was Death by Stoning. The Crime? Having a Mobile Phone,” The Independent, September 29, 2013,

[106] “Two Girls, Mother Killed Over Family Video,” Dawn, June 25, 2014,;“Pakistani Women Shot in 'Honour Killings,'” BBC,

[108] “Blast in Nowshera Destroys Internet Cafe, Music Store,” Dawn, February 2, 2013,; “Fresh Bomb Attacks Kill 2 Shias, Wound 20 in Pakistan,” Press TV, January 13, 2013,; “Police: Bomb Blast at Mall in Northwestern Pakistan Kills 1 Person, Wounds 12,” The Associated Press via Fox News, February 21, 2013,

[109] Two men died in a shooting attack on an internet café in Karachi which was later reported to be targeting a specific customer, not the venue. “Two killed in attack on internet café,” Dawn, November 1, 2013,

[111]Hisham Almiraat, “Cyber Attack on Pakistan's Electoral Commission Website,” Global Voices Advocacy, April 1, 2013,