Asad Mukhtar, a 27-year-old man who is currently employed in Karachi as a cook, is grateful for the free WhatsApp service from his cellphone provider Zong—one of the five largest telecommunications companies in Pakistan, owned by China Mobile. The service “has made communication with my family and friends back home very convenient and I don’t have to worry about data recharge to speak to them,” he told me recently.
Millions of Pakistanis like Mukhtar enjoy free internet offers from their cellphone providers. And thanks to Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, which was intended to help people from developing countries get online, most of them also access a small part of the internet free of cost. But while people may be happily using these offers, they are flagrant violations of net neutrality—the idea that internet access should be the same for everyone and that internet service providers shouldn’t prioritize certain content over the rest of the internet. This often comes in the form of zero-rating plans like Zong’s WhatsApp offer. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that “zero-rating plans exempt particular data from counting against a user’s data cap, or from accruing any excess usage charges.” In the U.S., zero-rating plans include T-Mobile’s Binge On, which offers subscribers the opportunity to watch streaming content without it counting toward their data plan—but the video quality is reduced. (Zero-rating services were controversial under the Obama-era net neutrality guidelines, but the Federal Communications Commission closed an investigation into them once the Trump-appointed chair took over.)
Telecommunications companies in Pakistan are asking users to trade one kind of free internet—an open internet that nobody owns and yet belongs to everyone—for another kind—an absence of cost. But as a result of this two-tiered model, the price that people are paying for the cost-free internet is sky-high.
In Pakistan, digital rights are extremely limited. The government uses draconian laws to stifle free speech and dissent online, and it suspends internet services on flimsy pretexts. Yet people are still attracted to the internet. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority annual report, the number of mobile phone subscribers in Pakistan is 140 million as of July, out of the total population of 220 million. That means about 63 percent of people have a mobile phone. That includes many of the 39 percent of Pakistanis who live under multidimensional poverty. This year, mobile broadband subscriptions were up by 6 percentage points from 2016. Mobile internet access for people with little income to spare is a huge business opportunity—hence the popularity of zero-rating services in the country.
The documented examples of zero-rating in Pakistan date back to 2013, with internet service providers prioritizing certain content over rest of the internet. In May 2014, Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited released a press statement announcing a joint venture with Dailymotion, a video streaming site, that would “offer improved viewing experience to PTCL customers.” This partnership came during the government’s three-year ban of YouTube, imposed in the aftermath of the protests against the blasphemous video “Innocence of Muslims.”
This is all possible because Pakistan doesn’t have any net neutrality regulations whatsoever. Despite, or perhaps because of, the popularity of zero-rated services, net neutrality is barely on the country’s radar. The only time the term net neutrality appeared in a government context came from a 2015 workshop organised by the Higher Education Commission, when the participants, in the presence of the minister of state for IT and telecommunications, presented a 20-pointer list titled “Pakistan Bucket List Internet Governance Issues.” Net neutrality sat on number 17, preceded by “sensible censorship” at 16.
As a digital rights activist in Pakistan, I have long hoped that this will change. But the U.S. Federal Communications Commission vote on Thursday to repeal existing net neutrality regulations will hurt the fight in countries like Pakistan too. When it comes to advanced technology and unconventional communication media like the internet, developing countries like Pakistan look to the U.S., the U.K., and the European Union, among others, to lead the way. By taking net neutrality away in the U.S., the FCC’s decision will also have serious repercussions for the global internet policy framework.
“The U.S. will set a dangerous precedent for developing countries who are just now beginning to grapple with issues on internet rights and regulation,” said Shmyla Khan, a digital rights lawyer from Lahore. “The U.S. is seen as the ideal type when it comes to unfettered freedom of expression, and Pakistani practitioners look toward it to lead the way in jurisprudence and best practice.”
For instance, back in 2015, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication proposed a cybercrimes bill (which has since been passed). During the many consultation meetings around the proposal, the ministers admitted that they had looked to cybercrimes laws from developed countries while drafting the bill. This is a common practice in developing nations, but it makes it even more important for progressive countries to draft well-crafted legislation and set a good precedent for others.
But Pakistan could look just over the border to get a better model of internet regulation. India has learned earlier and better than Pakistan or any developing country to adapt to the changing climate, at least in terms of internet regulation. From rejecting Facebook’s Free Basics altogether in early 2016 to declaring digital privacy a fundamental right in the middle of this year, India is now moving on to pass some of the strongest internet rights protections in the developing world. But the history that connects Pakistan and India also divides them from their core.
Pakistan has the sixth largest population in the world, and it consistently ranks low on every security, economic, and development list. Overpopulation and low resources add up to the burden on the already deteriorating condition of the country. Although the development sector is highly active, its attention is rightly focused on more pressing issues like health care, education, poverty, and countering violent extremism. While other countries, like Finland, are moving toward declaring internet access a basic right, it’s still a luxury in Pakistan. But someday, Pakistan’s economy will stabilize, and the legislators will move to make the internet more open. When that happens, the rules in developed countries will serve as models. With the FCC’s decision to kill the open internet, I can only hope that lawmakers in Pakistan won’t look to the United States.