Pakistan shut down the internet – but that didn’t stop the protests

Business International Tech

The battle between Imran Khan’s supporters and the powerful Pakistani military has this week been raging on two fronts – on the streets and on social media. And on one battlefield, the former prime minister seems to have the upper hand.

Within hours of Imran Khan’s arrest on Tuesday, Pakistan’s government had clamped down on the country’s internet, in a move to quell resistance.

The capture of the swashbuckling political leader immediately sparked protests nationwide.

In Lahore, Nighat Dad rushed home after hearing Khan had been detained. Leaving the office in the city centre, the lawyer’s staff had already started to encounter violent protesters.

“A mob tried to attack their cars and stop them from leaving,” she told the BBC.

As one of Pakistan’s leading digital rights activists, she was also keeping an eye on the discourse raging online.

Images of stone-throwing protesters in clouds of teargas unrolled across social media and pinged across WhatsApp groups. Video of the arrest – Khan being swarmed by paramilitary troops – went viral. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), spat out rapid-fire updates on their Twitter page.

To control the rapidly escalating situation, the government flipped the switch. Across the country, social media sites went down – people struggled to load Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Mobile networks were also blocked in some places, resulting in a full connectivity outage. Elsewhere, internet speeds were throttled.

When the blackout came, for most Pakistanis it wasn’t unexpected. Those that could, booted up their VPNs – demand for the services which reroute a user’s internet location skyrocketed by 1,300%, trackers later told the BBC. Those with mobile access continued on WhatsApp.

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