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EDITORIAL: Last Friday and Monday, the government felt compelled to arrest the unrest in the country by shutting down prominent social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp for quite a few hours. One can always debate the efficacy of these steps but a broader issue of the unintended adverse socioeconomic impact of these breakdowns needs to be evaluated in an era where digital transactions and interactions are becoming an integral part of the modern economy. Unfortunately, Pakistan has already missed the bus of industrial revolution of the last century that stipulated, among other things, the competitive market society, but its youth bulge is geared to take a leap forward in the digital age. A few start-ups have flourished in the digital space and many more are in the process of making their presence felt. Many businesses operate online using the social media apps. Many transactions are taking place digitally, and digitizing the economy is probably the only way to document it. In this backdrop, a blackout of internet or cutting down social media should not be the standard operating procedure to manage the law and order situation. There are better ways around the world to have better digital scrutiny and targeted ways to curb the spread of unwanted content and thwart undesired gatherings.

Pakistan has a legacy problem. A few years back, an SOP was set to cut down cellphone services to dilute the impact of religious or other protests. Such protests happen around the world, and these usually remain localized, and the population at large does not have to deal with a large-scale connectivity outage. But the practice continues in Pakistan to date. The question, however, is: why should the common man and the businesses have to pay rent for state’s inefficiencies? This has been happening in the power sector where the consumer tariffs are increasing due to inability of the government to collect from non-payers and eliminate theft. For many people around, social media is the internet. Banning it is effectively ending the business communication for many, and the consumer has to pay the cost. Even cutting internet is not really a loss of internet providers as the majorly work on monthly prepaid packages; it’s the buyer and sellers (users) who are adversely impacted. A few years back, YouTube was banned and recently TikTok was banned. The earnings from using these apps are bread money for many families and businesses. They suffer the most. Last week, Twitter and Facebook were banned across the country, but the spread of hatred continues one way or the other and it is the ordinary people who depend on such platforms that are adversely affected across the board.

Taking down cellphone services or Internet service in a certain region is a loss in that pocket. Banning social media is a loss across the country. Many startups and venture capitalists see this critically and add risk-premium to investing in societies where such blanket bans/outages become a norm. We live in a world where broadband is fast becoming a human right where social media has become the main avenue on which many folks, especially the young, get their news and information. Therefore, rather than ordering entire platforms to go dark, the state has to think of ways to operate surgically in banning undesirable or inflammatory content. Otherwise, it’s an infringement on people’s rights. The broadband penetration in Pakistan is approaching 100 million mark. It has increased from 8.9 percent in 2015 to 39.1 percent in 2020. State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) are relentlessly working on incentivizing digital economy. There are fiscal and other incentives being offered. The regulators are working on promoting platforms such as RAAST. They are lowering the transaction costs on digital payments. Businesses are fast moving away from paper to digital means for promoting and spurring businesses. A country that desperately needs to move up the ladder through digital means cannot afford such periods of digital blackouts. The government needs to introspect and come up with alternate ways to manage law and order.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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