Pakistan On Verge of Techno-Authoritarian Turn

Ramsha Jahangir / Jul 10, 2024

Ramsha Jahangir is a fellow at Tech Policy Press.

Karachi, Pakistan - August 9, 2023: Preparation for Pakistan independence day on the streets of Karachi. Hasnain Qureshi, Shutterstock

In Pakistan, once-shadowy censorship tactics are now out in the open, serving as a stark reminder of the clear and present threat posed by the government's tightening control over the internet. With each new censorship measure, Pakistan inches closer to a landscape where access to information, free expression, and privacy are a distant memory. Here’s how (and this is just the tip of the iceberg):

Keeping tabs on millions

In a move raising concerns about privacy rights, the Pakistani government has granted its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), broad new powers to intercept phone calls, messages, and even web browsing data. This comes just days after a High Court ruling questioning the legality of government surveillance.

The "Lawful Intercept Management System" (LIMS) allows the ISI to conduct surveillance without independent oversight, capturing “the entire content of communication,” including audio, video, and web browsing data, according to a court judgment. This judgment emerged from a case where private phone conversations were recorded and leaked on social media, including those of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife.

Adding to the concerns, LIMS even collects encrypted data from communication apps, though it cannot decrypt the content itself. To access the content of encrypted messages, Pakistani authorities would need to make separate requests for decryption directly to the social media companies behind the apps, such as WhatsApp. “A rough estimation reflects that at any given time over 4 million citizens…can be surveilled,” the judgment noted.

But it gets worse. The court order revealed a critical gap in Pakistan's surveillance practices, that no warrant has ever been sought under the Investigation for Fair Trial Act of 2013, the legal framework supposedly governing state surveillance. This revelation not only exposes potential executive overreach but also lays bare the glaring lack of accountability, privacy, and data protection safeguards within the law itself.

The lack of transparency surrounding Pakistan's surveillance practices raises a multitude of troubling questions. Is this system truly "lawful" if it operates entirely outside of judicial oversight, potentially violating fundamental rights in the country’s constitution? Without warrants or clear criteria for targeting individuals, the system opens the door for abuse and disproportionate enforcement. How will citizens know if they're being monitored, and on what grounds? These concerns extend beyond legality. How will this data be used, and where will it be stored? The potential for misuse, from stifling dissent to selective targeting, casts a long shadow. The murky line between national security and individual privacy demands a clear and transparent legal framework, with robust checks and balances, before Pakistan sleepwalks into a society of pervasive surveillance.

X ban to continue

Since February 17, 2024, X (formerly Twitter) has been inaccessible to users in Pakistan. After months of denial, confusion and obfuscation, the government has confirmed it will not revoke the ban. In a written response to the Sindh High Court, which is hearing multiple petitions against the ban, the Interior Ministry defended its actions, claiming that X poses a "threat to peace and national security" by spreading "misinformation and inciting violence.”

While acknowledging the ban on social media platform X, the Pakistani Interior Ministry insists it doesn't violate freedom of expression or information access protected by Article 19 of the Constitution. The ministry cites the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020 (issued under Section 37 of PECA 2016) as the legal basis for blocking X for non-compliance with local rules. Interestingly, these very rules have been challenged in court and found to be prima facie in violation of Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution.

To justify the ban, the ministry frames it as a measure to promote "responsible use of social media platforms in accordance with local laws." The ministry offers a precedent for the X ban. In the past, the Interior Ministry took a similar action against TikTok, citing "objectionable content" on the platform. However, it argues that this ban was lifted after TikTok signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government, agreeing to comply with Pakistani laws.

This push for localization continues to be difficult to reconcile with internationally recognized principles of necessity and proportionality. In the absence of a precise and transparent legal basis for restrictions, Pakistan authorities expect companies to enact updates to their terms of service prohibiting a broad range of difficult-to-define content, including content that "violates religious, cultural, or ethnic sensitivities" and "national security," and to monitor their services accordingly.

In a separate petition seeking a countrywide ban on TikTok for allowing “un-Islamic” posts, the company told a court that it had shifted the onus of blasphemous content's removal to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. They added that they will remove videos after receiving complaints from the regulator.

A clear notice and takedown mechanism in line with international best practices include establishing a legal framework based on the principles of necessity and proportionality, outlining specific criteria for content removal, and ensuring judicial oversight of decisions. The path forward necessitates a delicate balancing act. Such restrictive models of state regulation risk more harms to human rights.


Some in the government have argued that Pakistan's tightening control over the internet simply reflects a global trend towards content moderation and national security measures. However, this justification falls short for several reasons. First, unlike many countries, Pakistan's actions lack transparency, clear and consistent legal grounding, and independent oversight. Second, effective content moderation can be achieved without sacrificing fundamental rights. Democratic countries often prioritize transparency, judicial review, and collaboration with social media platforms to develop clear guidelines and content moderation strategies. Pakistan's current approach risks isolating it from these best practices and creating a digital landscape that prioritizes control over freedom.


Ramsha Jahangir
Ramsha Jahangir is an award-winning Pakistani journalist and policy expert specializing in technology and human rights. Ramsha has extensively reported on platforms, surveillance, digital politics, and disinformation in Pakistan. Ramsha previously reported for Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, D...