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This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 10 August 2023.
The government has throttled the internet and limited access to social media platforms to curb opposition protests in recent years. Protests and related measures are particularly likely during what we anticipate will be a contentious election period. So internet restrictions in response to these are probable and would last several hours at least.
There are a few impediments to the Pakistani authorities restricting the internet, albeit in a limited fashion. The national and local governments have the legal basis to suspend mobile network services, throttle the internet and restrict access to specific websites and social media platforms. And this is a tool they are using increasingly frequently. According to Bytes For All, a human rights organisation, there were 24 network shutdowns in Pakistan in 2022, in comparison to 15 in 2021.
We assess that these internet restrictions are most likely to occur in major cities in eastern and southern Pakistan. According to Bytes for All, the cities where the most network shutdowns happened in 2022 were Rawalpindi, Quetta, and Karachi, where opposition protests are frequent. That geographical trend appears unchanged this year. According to a source who works for a security company in Pakistan, and activists posting on social media, in those cities there were either complete internet shutdowns or social media restrictions during unrest following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan in May.
Localised internet shutdowns, internet speed throttling and social media restrictions are likely in places where protesters gather, such as areas around courts, city centres and political party buildings. The authorities usually impose such restrictions at or around main protest locations or on a district level. According to our security source, when protests become particularly large or violent, the government tends to expand the range of internet shutdowns to a citywide level.
We have identified several indicators below that would suggest city-wide internet restrictions are imminent:
Internet restrictions in response to protests are mostly imposed with immediate effect. Measures are usually not announced in advance, according to a journalist based in Islamabad we spoke with in July. These can take different forms, from complete internet shutdowns to restrictions on messenger apps, such as Telegram. Based on our conversations with sources and monitoring of protests, these measures can last from a few hours to several days. Our journalist source told us last month that VPNs largely worked to help bypass these specific restrictions, provided there is a working internet connection.
We assess that countrywide internet restrictions are unlikely over the coming months. This is because the government usually targets specific areas where there are protests or planned protest locations. Also, the high cost of these restrictions to the economy would probably deter the government from implementing them over the whole country. Still, in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the November general election, there is a high likelihood for such measures in response to protests in major cities.
Political protests and party rallies are probable ahead of the general election due in November. Opposition protests are common in advance of elections. And we anticipate this election period to be particularly fractious. This is because Khan appears intent on contesting the polls and remains very popular, according to recent opinion polls. Over the past year, he has mobilised tens of thousands of supporters in anti-government protest campaigns across the country. Large protests would be particularly likely if the government bans the PTI, which we assess is possible if not probable.
In response to such protests, the authorities will probably throttle the internet, implement localised internet shutdowns and restrict access to messenger and social media apps. This is an established tactic by the authorities to disperse protestors and suppress news of opposition rallies. Following the widespread unrest in major cities after the authorities first arrested Khan in May 2023, the authorities suspended mobile network and internet access across Punjab province and in Karachi to prevent protesters from organising.
Image: Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, poses for a photograph with parliamentarians after the current last session of the National Assembly outside the parliament house building in Islamabad on 9 August 2023. Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images.