We are currently in unprecedented times. As the world moves away from public and shared spaces into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic; technology has become a crucial link between us and the outside world. There is no doubt that technology is an enabling tool, ensuring connectivity, access to life-saving information and indispensable to fighting the Coronavirus. However, Bolo Bhi and Digital Rights Foundation posit that an uncritical embrace of technology should not ignore the fact that access to these technologies is still a luxury for many and provision of internet is very low in countries such as Pakistan.
In light of the rapid shift to digital services during a global pandemic, Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi make the following demands:
- We urge the government, businesses, and civil society to recognise internet access as a basic fundamental right. This was recognised by the United Nations as far back as 2011 when the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression stated that all member states have an obligation to ensure unrestricted access to the internet. It is only when we understand the issue of internet access as one of fundamental human rights can we take measures to ensure access on an equal and non-discriminatory basis.
- We call on internet service providers to lower the cost of internet packages; conversely, increasing rates during a pandemic is unconscionable and amounts to profiteering during a public emergency.
- We urge all essential service providers making the switch to digital to conduct urgent human rights audits to assess the impact on their customers and take steps to mitigate the disadvantages that accrue to their most marginalised users and beneficiaries.
- We demand that educational institutions cancel all online classes till physical lessons are possible. Given the state of budget cuts in the education sector and the possibility of fee hikes, we believe that the education sector is currently not equipped to switch to digital classrooms without excluding a significant part of the student population.
- We demand an immediate end to the mobile internet shutdown imposed in ex-FATA territories and parts of Balochistan.
- We also demand that the Pakistan Telecommunity Authority (PTA) works with internet service providers to increase the bandwidth capacity of the nation’s internet, as the increased load on the existing infrastructure could lead to slow-downs and unreliable access at a time when the internet is tied to essential services.
- We petition the state and businesses to invest in public WiFi hotspots, during these times, in high population density areas; however free WiFi should not come at the cost of users’ privacy and stringent privacy policies and protocols need to accompany these measures.
- For communities that lack infrastructural access to the internet, we urge the government to provide tools and information about setting up community inter and intranet systems to ensure access on an emergency basis.
- We call upon government and private internet service providers to provide personal protection equipment for employees who carry out their duties for smooth provision of the internet to citizens.
- We call upon the government and telecom industry to utilise the Universal Services Fund, which was established by the government to support development of telecommunication services in unserved and underserved areas using annual contribution from telecom companies, to improve access to the internet. A more targeted approach towards specific population groups through the use of disaggregated indicators — that accounts for intersectionality across factors such as age, religion, disability, economic position and gender — can positively impact the ability of various social groups to exercise their rights online and help bridge the digital divide
Unequal access to the internet is a multifaceted issue: it is infrastructural – many communities in Pakistan do not have physical access to the internet; economic – broadband internet is not affordable for large segments of the population and many can only afford limited mobile internet packages; and social – factors such as gender and being differently-abled can limit one’s access to technologies.
Internet access in Pakistan stands at around 35 percent, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2019, Pakistan fell into the last quartile of index countries, ranking 76 out of a 100; particularly low on indicators pertaining to affordability.
As more services move from offline to digital, it is becoming clear that the digital gap is an urgent issue of human rights. Internet access is undercut by structural inequalities such as class, gender, location, ability, and ethnicity.
In Pakistan, the digital gender divide is among the highest in the world. According to the GSMA “Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019”, Pakistan had the widest mobile ownership gender gap as women were 37 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone due to economic inequality and patriarchal attitudes.
Additionally, mobile internet (often the most affordable mode of access) has been shut down in parts of Balochistan and ex-FATA due to generalised security reasons. Even for areas that do have access, internet speed varies based on one’s location. For instance, internet speed in Gilgit-Baltistan is significantly slower than internet speed in urban centers of Punjab and Sindh. Lastly, internet access is often linked to an uninterrupted and reliable electricity supply. Loadshedding in several parts of the country can go upto 16 to 18 hours a day, often during the day when virtual classes and official work takes place.
Students across Pakistan have been protesting against the shift to online classrooms, rightly pointing out that as students from less urban centers move back home, they either lack access to high-speed internet, or no internet at all. Many students might have to travel long distances to access the internet just to attend one lecture, a reality that disadvantages students belonging to non-urban areas and lower-income backgrounds. Furthermore, the move will result in double discrimination for female students in such situations who often lack access and mobility due to their gender. The move to online classes, though neutral at a policy-level, becomes discriminatory, given the disparate impact in the context of a country like Pakistan.
As offices across the nation have closed due to social-distancing measures mandated by the government, workers are being asked to work from home. However, work from home has significant implications for homes that do not have broadband connections or cannot afford internet packages at a time of immense financial uncertainty. Furthermore, lower-income families either do not own digital devices or they are shared by the entire family unit; this means that families with more than one member working from home or students with online classes will be forced to make a choice.
Access to Information:
Being deprived of the internet during a public health emergency creates a hierarchy in terms of access to information. Dissemination of vital information regarding preventive measures, government announcements relating to lockdowns, and public health campaigns are now being done on social media. However without access to an affordable and fast internet connection, this places a majority of communities and segments of society into an informational blackhole. This information can be especially crucial for healthcare workers in communities that are not well-connected. Additionally, information flow in the age of the internet is often two-way, meaning the vital data and stories about the impact of the Coronavirus on cut-off communities will not find their way onto mainstream social media.
As the government uses mobile-based applications to disseminate information about the virus and distribute rations of basic necessities, the most marginalised will be left behind. While financial institutions are making their internet banking more accessible and waiving transfer charges, those who rely on cash transfer services such as easy-paisa are unable to access them due to closure of shops and social distancing practices.
During these times, the digital divide will exasperate the existing structural inequalities in society as services and resources will concentrate among the already connected, leaving behind those who are most vulnerable to economic and social upheaval.