Updated: April 02, 2020 08:32 AM GMT
People work at their stations at the National Incubation Centre in Lahore. Two rights groups have urged Pakistan's government, businesses and civil society to recognize internet access as a basic fundamental right. (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP)
Internet rights groups have warned that the digital divide is likely to widen structural inequalities in Pakistan amid the coronavirus pandemic.
They say services and resources will concentrate among the already connected, leaving behind those who are most vulnerable to economic and social upheaval.
In a joint statement, the Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi, a civil society organization engaged in advocacy, policy and research in digital rights, said an uncritical embrace of technology should not ignore the fact that access to these technologies is still a luxury for many and provision of the internet is very low in countries such as Pakistan.
“We urge the government, businesses and civil society to recognize internet access as a basic fundamental right. This was recognized 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,” the groups said.
“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.”
The groups also called for educational institutions to cancel online classes until 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,” they said.
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, and was particularly low on indicators pertaining to affordability.
Waqar Naeem, a Catholic researcher and freelance writer, said unlimited access to internet remains a luxury for marginalized groups.
“Minorities and low-income Muslim groups can’t afford expensive internet packages to join online classes or do office work from homes. It will only double their financial burden,” he said. “The government should come up with a comprehensive plan to ensure affordable internet connectivity for communities who can’t afford it. Owing to Covid-19, we are now realizing the importance of digital equality.”
Samson Buta, editor of Agahi, the official weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Karachi, said the government must ensure unrestricted internet access to low-income families, former tribal districts and insurgency-hit Balochistan province.
“It is our main source of information during the time of a deadly plague. People want to stay updated about the developing situation,” Buta said.
Mariyam Mushtaq, a graduate Christian student, called for special internet packages for students.
“Following the closure of universities and other educational institutes, students are now required to take online classes and submit assignments. Not everyone can afford internet. Many will eventually miss their lessons and precious time,” Mushtaq said.