X marks the spot


X marks the spot

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It’s been over 10 days that the app formerly known as Twitter has been inaccessible in Pakistan. We don’t know when it will be back, or for how long. We don’t know why it’s been blocked and we certainly don’t know by whom because no government authority or department is owning up to it. The interior and information ministers have denied responsibility, which leaves the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) as the possible culprit, given that this is the only other ‘legal’ authority empowered to do so. But the PTA, whose mandate includes the ‘provision of telecommunication services in Pakistan,’ is incommunicado. 

Meanwhile, citizens are finding that the VPNs they are using to get around the blocking are also being blocked, which ends up slowing the entire Internet down. This is how it was explained to me: ‘Imagine the Internet as a vast network of interconnected and interdependent highways, roads, and streets that connect different places. Think of a single website as a destination that might use several of these highways to ensure you can reach it quickly and efficiently from wherever you are. Now, if you want to stop people from reaching a specific site, you set up a roadblock which then causes jams on other roads (imagine turning Shahrah-e-Faisal into a single lane road) because all these highways are so crucial and interconnected. You now have a domino effect. 

To avoid said roadblocks, some people use secret detours or VPNs. However, when the government starts looking for these detours and blocking them too, it becomes harder for everyone, including people who just want to get to work safely and quickly (IT folks), to find a way through. In short, when the government blocks too much on the Internet, it’s not just the bad stuff that gets caught. It can mess up a lot of other things — like how we talk to each other, how we shop, and how we work. It’s a big deal and can make a lot of things harder for everyone.’

As if to rub salt on the wounds of less privileged Twitter users, the outgoing caretaker minister for information technology was happily tweeting about Pakistan’s impending digital revolution – using a VPN.

- Zarrar Khuhro

Quite apart from being incredibly annoying and an attempt to throttle free speech and communication, it’s also hitting many Pakistanis where it hurts: their wallets and bank accounts. 

The director of a fairly large digital marketing company called me in a panic the other day asking when Twitter would be restored; he has a campaign worth over 50 lakh rupees ($18,000) on hold thanks to this open-ended ban and if this continues, he may have to let go of staff members. Just to note, these are the people who conduct Twitter campaigns on behalf of major local and multinational companies.

Smaller companies have it even worse: Abdul Majeed, the CEO of T-REX communications is at his wits end; he used to conduct about three Twitter campaigns a day, employing 400 or so microbloggers who get paid small sums for their efforts. This means that he also has to hire a team to manage and coordinate these payments and projects and, with Twitter in limbo, all these jobs are on the line. Micro-bloggers – mostly hailing from middle-class families — are feeling the pinch. Many of them bought the coveted ‘blue ticks’ from Twitter in order to earn dollars from engagement and were making anything from $1,000 to $2,000 dollars in a day. 

Consider what that means for a middle-class family in Pakistan, and consider that this is a country with high unemployment that is desperate for dollars and foreign currency inflows. Now, because these micro-bloggers have to use VPNs, they can no longer be monetized because as far as Twitter is concerned, their location keeps switching (that’s how VPNs work). And so they get de-monetized or blocked due to Twitter considering this ‘suspicious activity.’ 

Freelancers are feeling the pinch as well; Pakistan is among the world’s top three freelancer services-providing nations with the estimated registered number of online freelancers ranging in the millions. And thanks to sporadic and unpredictable Internet shutdowns and slowdowns, they are losing out on lucrative projects. Just last year, Fiverr, a major freelancer platform, issued a warning to users that projects from Pakistan may be delayed due to Internet blockages, causing merchants to take their business elsewhere. 

These marketing professionals, micro-bloggers and freelancers are young people who aren’t asking the government for handouts or jobs, they were making their own money and feeding their families. And now, thanks to a deeply insecure state paranoid about social media, they face nothing but uncertainty. Meanwhile, as if to rub salt on the wounds of less privileged Twitter users, the outgoing caretaker minister for information technology was happily tweeting about Pakistan’s impending digital revolution – using a VPN — as were various official government Twitter accounts, such as the office of the caretaker Prime Minister. Truly in Pakistan, the jokes write themselves…just not on Twitter.

- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view