X Outage In Pakistan Triggers Surge In VPN Use

Published 1 month ago
By Forbes | Mary Whitfill Roeloffs
Supporters of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan protest in Peshawer
Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan protest after Khan's residence was besieged to arrest him upon a court order in Peshawer, Pakistan on March 14, 2023. Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party started protests across the country. (Photo by Hussain Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

TOPLINE

Internet users in Pakistan are turning to virtual private networks to access the social media platform X after the site was blocked over the weekend following a contentious national election and admission of ballot fraud by a local government official.

KEY FACTS

VPNs, which can mask the identity and location of users to help access websites and services that may be blocked in a certain region, have become increasingly popular in the days since access to X, formerly known as Twitter, was cut off for much of the country.

While social media platforms have been marred with issues in Pakistan for the last month, the issue came to a head at about noon ET on Saturday and, as of Friday morning, X has been restricted in the country for five days, according to watchdog monitoring service Netblocks.

Advertisement

Top10VPN, an independent VPN review website, reported that demand for VPN services in Pakistan rose 131% Sunday, the first full day of the X outage, and continued into Monday, when the demand was 91% higher than average.

Nord Security, a VPN provider in Pakistan, told Forbes search interest in its products doubled on Sunday and reached four times its usual traffic for the week on Tuesday, while ExpressVPN said traffic to its website from Pakistan spiked 67% within the first 24 hours of the disruption, and has increased 80% in the four days since.

Surfshark, another provider in the country, said its new user acquisition rates in Pakistan climbed between 300% and 400% when compared to the previous month, “indicating a growing dependence on these services for internet access and privacy.”

The American media team for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the centrist party whose leader Imran Khan was jailed ahead of the country’s election earlier this month, on Wednesday posted to X that the Pakistani government has also begun to block popular VPN services.

Advertisement

CRUCIAL QUOTE

“Pakistan’s latest clampdown on social media is a continuation of a broader trend of limiting internet access and undermining digital rights in the country,” Lauren Hendry Parsons, a privacy advocate for ExpressVPN, told Forbes in a statement. “It’s another example of a global decline in internet freedom as more countries have become more comfortable enforcing internet shutdowns.”

KEY BACKGROUND

The recent restrictions on social media in Pakistan began on Saturday, when a government official admitted he’d help to manipulate the results of a nationwide Feb. 8 election. Liaqat Ali Chattha, the commissioner of Rawalpindi, said he would hand himself over to police after he’d “personally supervised” the switching of 70,000 votes. The fraud admission came one week after an extremely contentious national election that saw Khan jailed ahead of the vote and charges dropped against the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, who is the preferred candidate of the Pakistan military. After Khan was sentenced, use of the PTI symbol to identify party candidates on national ballots was banned—a move slammed as an access issue for the roughly 62% of the country who cannot read—and all PTI candidates were forced to run as independents. PTI-backed candidates did gain more votes than those of any other party, but because each candidate ran as an individual, PML-N was the largest single-party winner in parliament. Both groups have claimed victory, and Sharif said he plans to form a coalition government. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has demanded an inquiry into the claims of election rigging, according to the Times of India.

BIG NUMBER

5. That’s how many times Pakistan has implemented internet restrictions so far this year, according to Surfshark. Of those, three took place in February and were directly related to the elections. The other two occurred in January during virtual events organized by PTI. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Wednesday urged the Pakistani government to “restore access to any social media that has been restricted, including Twitter.” Elon Musk, the owner of X and the world’s second-richest person, has not commented publicly on the outage.

TANGENT

Those who have been able to access X have lashed out at Umar Saif, Pakistan’s interim technology minister, after he posted several times on the platform after the outage began, which implies he used a VPN to skirt government wishes. Saif has posted original content to X four times and retweeted one post since Feb. 18, including a post flaunting the growth of Pakistan’s IT industry. None of his posts referenced the outage. “Sir which vpn you’re using to tweet this?” one X user asked. Anas Mallick, a reporter with WIONews, responded to a post Wednesday with “please let us know what VPN are you using to tweet this for the benefit of general public.”

Advertisement

SURPRISING FACT

Pakistan isn’t the only country to have VPN use surge following a change in policy. Nord Security said traffic surges like the ones seen in Pakistan this week were also observed in 2022, when news emerged China was considering taking full control of Hong Kong, and in the United States in 2017, when the FCC repealed net neutrality rules. Similar spikes also occurred in the United Kingdom in 2016 when the country passed the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter” law, which allows the government to collect online information on its citizens and have it stored by private companies.