Network shutdowns impacting an entire country are now almost non-existent, but the practice of shutting down communications in certain cities or areas of a country, or suspending certain services continues globally. This has happened over the past decade or so for a variety of reasons, sometimes due to national security concerns but also to prevent the organisation of protests or the spread of civil unrest.
Due to the extremely sensitive nature of the subject, most telecommunications operators rarely address publicly the issue of network shutdowns and associated policies. Therefore, relatively little is known about the reasons for shutdowns, the mechanism through which governments affect such shutdowns, or the economic and social impacts of shutdowns on telecommunications companies, users, and society at large. Without such information, there is little opportunity to understand the avenues for prevention, mitigation and redress for business, users, or civil society.
To combat its own serious public security challenges, the Government of Pakistan has often instructed telecommunication operators to suspend mobile and/or Internet networks where intelligence indicates a threat to national security. The Government of Pakistan’s stated intention in blocking access to communication at such a time is primarily in order to protect the right to life as violent extremists use mobile phones to inform each other of their movements and in some cases, mobile phones have been used to detonate bombs.
Due to the relatively frequent nature of network shutdowns and associated security considerations, Pakistan was selected as the focus for this study. This paper seeks to:
- Analyse the Pakistan context as an introduction to further research on the economic and social impacts of network shutdowns.
- Explore how requests for disconnection are made by authorised agencies to telecommunication operators.
- Conduct a preliminary study on the day-to-day impacts and the perception of Pakistani citizens of network shutdowns, with a view to developing more in-depth research in the future.
- Analyse instances of mobile and Internet shutdowns outside of Pakistan, which were followed by corporate and government campaigns to achieve positive change, such as an amendment in the law.
- Provide best practices and guidelines for telecommunication operators with regard to handling network shutdown requests.
- Explore short-term and long-term opportunities for government strategies that both safeguard human rights online and offline by working with companies and governments so that human rights (of expression, assembly, privacy, security, and others) are not undermined while governments pursue legitimate objectives such as protecting society from terrorism or violence.