Censorship in Pakistan: How to Get Around Online Restrictions

Map of Pakistan with two hands holding a blocked tablet and smartphone next to it
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Online Censorship in Pakistan: a Summary

Pakistan has one of the largest populations of internet users worldwide. Unfortunately, the numbers of banned content are just as staggering. Tens of thousands of websites get banned each year, which helps the government stay in power. Besides the bans, Pakistan also censors online content through:

  • State-owned infrastructure
  • Content takedowns
  • Attacks on journalists

However, there is hope for the average Pakistani. Using a VPN allows anyone in Pakistan to circumvent the bans and navigate the web anonymously. A good VPN to help you access the internet freely is ExpressVPN:

Read our full article below to learn more about censorship in Pakistan and how to circumvent it.

Pakistan represents South Asia’s fastest growing internet market. As of August 2020, 40% of its population of 222 million had access to the internet. For context, this used to be only 1% in 2001. Internet users in Pakistan access the web mostly through mobile phones, with over 90% of connections in the country coming from mobile devices.

There is a clear rise in internet usage and an increased interest in social media in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani government has passed several laws that give them the power to block, remove, and censor online content. They also use intelligence agencies to keep tabs on their citizens’ online activities.

Increasing Censorship and Surveillance

Under the pretext of protecting national security and the integrity of Islamic morality, the Pakistani government has actively targeted political groups, racial and religious minorities, and those seen to be criticizing the army or security forces on the internet.

Currently, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocks over 80,000 websites and an additional 200,000 links each year based on “objectionable morality” or obscenity. It’s a massive program to limit individual freedoms, including the freedom of expression, and it’s deeply rooted in Pakistan’s ultra-nationalistic society.

Why Does the Government of Pakistan Censor the Internet?

Censored eye on laptop screenAccording to data provided by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), the vast majority of content censored by the Pakistani government is focused on pornography, sites which challenge the Islamic religion or contain blasphemous content, and websites and blogs that promote political or religious dissidence.

The motivation behind internet censorship in Pakistan can be attributed to one of two factors:

  • They wish to maintain the moral standard of the state religion by banning any content that offends it.
  • They wish to silence political dissent by not allowing any critique on the actions of the government or security services.

In recent years, the PTA has also moved to block censorship circumvention tools, such as proxies and VPNs. The government of Pakistan wants to block these services because they allow people to navigate the internet freely, without intelligence agencies being able to keep a tab on them.

What Does the Government of Pakistan Censor?

As a deeply religious state, the Pakistani government claims it is mostly focused on censoring secular views and satire of Islam. Sometimes, however, the reason for a ban or limitation on the internet is actually more likely to be political.

Pornography

Pornography remains illegal in Pakistan and, as of 2020, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has taken steps to block access to over 100,000 websites and pages that contain “salacious content”.

A report by the PTA to the Pakistani Supreme Court shows that a list of 400,000 additional links were handed over to ISPs (Internet Service Providers) for censorship. However, the PTA has been unable to completely censor these links, because of the expense involved for the ISPs.

Satire

Satirical comedy websites that are considered to challenge Islam or the Pakistani government are subject to censorship by the PTA. The Digital Rights Foundation reported that the site of the Khabaristan Times, Pakistan’s version of the satirical website the Onion, has been blocked for Pakistani users since January 25, 2018.

Similarly, attempting to access the website of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo from inside Pakistan results in a redirection to a message reading: “Surf Safely! The website is not accessible. The site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited for viewership within Pakistan as per the law.” 

Anti-Islamic content

YouTube LogoOne of the more high-profile cases of internet censorship in Pakistan was the blocking of YouTube in response to the posting of the anti-Islamic video “The Innocence of Muslims”.

In January 2016, a localized version of the YouTube platform, YouTube PK, became available. The Pakistani government only agreed to the use of the localized platform when Google agreed to allow takedown requests, through a direct channel, to remove any “objectionable content”.

Of the 80,000 internet pages currently censored by the PTA and Pakistani ISPs, around 25% of them are blocked in Pakistan because they are critical of Islam or offend “Islamic mortality”. In a high-profile case, anti-terrorism courts handed down a thirteen-year prison sentence to Rizwan and Saqlain Haider for sharing “hateful messages against the companions of the Prophet Mohammed” on Facebook.

Social media platforms

At some points in time, certain social media platforms in Pakistan were also unavailable. The NetBlocks Internet Observatory and Digital Rights Foundation observed that the Pakistani government blocked social media and content-sharing websites, including Twitter and Facebook, in response to the violent Tehreek-e-Labaik protests.

All major Pakistani fixed-line and mobile service providers put the restriction in place at the requests of the PTA, and they restored access when the protests abated. This means that, at the time of the blocks, citizens’ freedom of expression was limited.

How Does the Government of Pakistan Censor the Internet?

The Pakistani government has an array of tools to censor the internet. Besides collaborating with ISPs and private entities to block specific content or websites, they also have a legal basis for their actions.

In short, the PTA blocks websites through DNS tampering, the use of HTTP proxies, and by blocking the IPs of said websites. With complete control over the internet infrastructure, it’s easy to block websites, but Pakistan also collaborates, on occasion, with bigger third parties. Websites like Facebook, Google, or Twitter are under constant pressure from Pakistani authorities to censor content.

We’ll shortly discuss all the different factors that allow the Pakistani government to partake in online censorship.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA)

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, passed in 2016, is the major piece of legislation used by the Pakistani government to criminalize political and religious dissent on the internet. The guidelines set out by PECA give the government, PTA, and security forces the ability to censor online content and take legal action against those accused of criminal activity.

The act allows for harsh punishments of up to 14 years of imprisonment and fines of up to 50 million rupees. Article 20 of PECA, which deals with offenses of defamation in digital spaces, allows the government of Pakistan to impose up to three years of imprisonment and a 10 million rupee fine. This article is routinely used to silence online commentators who criticize the government or the military.

The 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act is another tool to criminalize free speech online. There are several documented cases in which the government tried individuals under section 11-W of the Anti-Terrorism Act for sharing “morally objectionable” material on Facebook.

Website blocking

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has ordered Pakistani ISPs to block over 100,000 websites through DNS tampering and through the use of HTTP proxies. The Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) ensures that all local mobile and broadband networks comply with blocking offers through stringent licensing conditions.

Besides blocking access to specific sites on the internet, research by the Canada-based Citizen Lab group has shown that technology developed by the Canadian company Netsweeper is being employed by the Pakistani government to filter political and social content on the PTCL network.

Surveillance

Telecom Building

The passing of PECA meant that the Pakistani security forces can conduct surveillance on the digital communications of their citizens. They are allowed to keep any personal data for up to one year, and even share that data with foreign governments and agencies.

PECA also allows the Pakistani Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to confiscate data and devices with no warrant and access and decrypt the traffic data of telecommunication subscribers.

The Pakistani government has invested in technology such as FinFisher to eavesdrop on private communications, with the technology enabling remote surveillance such as keylogging, webcam or microphone access, and password collection.

Besides PECA, the government has made use of the Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013, the Electronic Transaction Ordinance, and the Pakistan Telecommunications Re-organization Act to conduct large-scale surveillance of its citizen’s activities on the internet and collect their personal information.

State-owned infrastructure

Most of Pakistan’s internet backbone is in the hands of the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE). PIE, in turn, is controlled by the state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited. By ensuring that most of the nation’s internet traffic moves through the PIE, the PTCL can impose strict licensing conditions on national ISPs that force them to comply with the PTAs censorship requests.

Content takedowns

The Pakistani government frequently requests that Facebook, Twitter, and Google prevent what they deem to be “objectionable content” from being accessible in Pakistan.

Facebook claims they received over 2300 requests from Pakistani authorities requiring data related to criminal cases in 2020, alongside demands for information on thousands of user accounts. While these kinds of demands have been met by Facebook before, the tech giant has stopped passing information over to the Pakistan government.

Attacks on online journalists

Since the beginning of 2017, there has been a surge in the number of attacks on journalists and bloggers on the internet who were critical of the Pakistani state. This severely limited the right to freedom of expression.

Back then, five civil rights activists, the poet Salman Haider, bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer, and social rights activist Samar Abbas were abducted from cities across Pakistan. All five have been vocal critics of militant Islamist groups and Pakistan’s military establishment and had posted their criticism on the internet.

Samar Abbas has since disappeared and, on his release, Waqas Goraya fled to the Netherlands claiming that the Pakistani security forces tortured him. At the beginning of 2017, using the wide-ranging powers granted to them by PECA, the FIA released a list of 200 social media users who had been openly critical of the Pakistani military and confiscated their devices for forensic analysis. While the numbers are unclear after that time period, a decrease in political dissidence since then shows that these measures were effective in keeping the population from fighting back against the repressive government.

How to Circumvent Censorship in Pakistan

Censorship in Pakistan is a clear human rights infringement. If you live in Pakistan, or plan to travel there, it’s important to know how to circumvent the bans we explored in this article. This way, you’ll be able to exercise your freedom of expression, even within the country’s borders. Here are a few important steps that anyone who wishes to use the internet freely in Pakistan should take:

  • Use a VPN or a proxy to access restricted websites.
  • Only sign up for online services under a pseudonym.
  • If you plan to share banned content, also do that under a pseudonym.

If you don’t take these safety precautions, you can expect every move you make online while in Pakistan to be tracked by the government. Moreover, you won’t have access to some websites, including satirical publications like the Onion and some social media platforms.

VPN shieldA VPN (Virtual Private Network) reroutes your internet traffic and masks your online activity. This means it can be used to overcome government censorship and surveillance in any country, including Pakistan.

Despite increasing levels of internet censorship and surveillance by the Pakistani security services, VPN services are currently legal to use in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani government only allows the use of registered VPNs. These registered VPNs probably log your activity, otherwise the government wouldn’t have accepted them, so they’re probably not a very safe option.

What Are the Best VPN Services to Use in Pakistan?

It’s important to pick a VPN provider that will help you circumvent blocks on the internet and hide your online activities. For Pakistan, that means you shouldn’t choose the state-approved VPNs, because they’ll probably track and log your activity.

Just using a VPN might not be enough, however. Make sure you’re always staying safe online, especially when you’re in a country such as Pakistan. Even if VPNs aren’t illegal in Pakistan, the government might be able to find some other reason to punish anyone who does something they don’t agree with. The options we give you below are all good for unblocking content. We believe in a free internet, but also want to stress that your own safety should always come first.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN offers excellent speeds and stable connections that will encrypt your data without slowing down your connection. If you’re in a country with a high risk of internet surveillance, such as Pakistan, ExpressVPN’s privacy and logging policies will make sure you remain anonymous while browsing. Their software uses the highest international standards of encryption, and their kill switch prevents any data leaks.

In terms of connections, ExpressVPN has thousands of servers all over the world, including some in locations close to Pakistan, like India. This means you won’t have any trouble finding a server that will allow you a speedy and secure connection to the internet. On top of this all, you can use ExpressVPN’s money-back guarantee to get a 30-day free trial.

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CyberGhost

An excellent, user-friendly VPN provider for the casual user is CyberGhost. CyberGhost has a clear and easy-to-use interface with all the options the average user could possibly need. It has numerous specialized servers, also for streaming, and works with high levels of encryption.

Although it generally isn’t as fast as ExpressVPN, CyberGhost offers a lot of features for a reasonable price. It even has a 45-day money-back guarantee which you could use as a free trial. CyberGhost has multiple servers in Pakistan, which makes it easy for you to navigate the web swiftly and anonymously. If you want to circumvent internet censorship and have a league of possibilities on the side, CyberGhost is a great pick.

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Surfshark

Along with CyberGhost, Surfshark is one of the cheapest VPNs on the market. For just a couple of dollars a month, you’ll be able to surf the internet without any restrictions, even from Pakistan. With Surfshark, cheap doesn’t mean bad. Surfshark has reliable software, a lot of servers all across the globe, and it’s very easy to use.

In general, ExpressVPN is without a doubt the most consistent and reliable VPN you could choose, especially when you’re looking for a VPN specifically to circumvent censorship on the internet. However, Surfshark doesn’t stay far behind. It has decent speeds and offers high-level encryption. If you’d like to try it for a limited time, you can even use their free trial.

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Can’t Access These VPNs?

It could be that you can’t reach the websites of the VPN providers mentioned above, because they’re being blocked in Pakistan. If the site of a VPN provider is blocked, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Try another service. A free VPN might help you access the right provider’s website, for example. You can then download the premium VPN of your choice to get full access.
  • Use a website proxy to access the website of your preferred VPN. A proxy might work temporarily, but a good VPN service is much better and safer in the long run, as it’ll keep you anonymous and secure.
  • Try to access the VPN websites with a mobile connection, as that might be able to get around the blocks.

If you know you’ll be travelling to Pakistan soon and want to be able to access a free internet during your travels, make sure you subscribe to, and download a VPN beforehand.

Final Thoughts

Pakistan is a country that has faced economic, religious, and political uncertainty for the past decade. The state has seen its share of terrorist attacks and a corresponding increase in the government’s efforts to censor politically or religiously dissent voices. New regulations, such as PECA, and a recent emphasis on harassing journalists who express themselves on the internet are undoubtedly worrying, making for severe online censorship within Pakistan’s borders.

That being said, if you are in Pakistan and want to be sure that your internet usage data is secure, the use of a VPN is an important step in helping you stay safe online. A VPN will help you stay anonymous online, but it isn’t a guarantee. If you log into a service using your real name or email, for example, you’re no longer anonymous. We want to help people worldwide access a free internet, but keep in mind that this article shouldn’t be taken as legal advice.

Internet Censorship in Pakistan: Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of the most frequently asked questions about internet censorship in Pakistan, and our answers to them.

Pakistan’s government censors the internet to support its authoritarian regime and ultra-nationalistic narrative. Internet censorship is very common in repressive countries like Pakistan, because access to a free internet can help people fight back against the ruling regime. If you want to find out more about what Pakistan censors, and how citizens are able to circumvent the bans, read our full article.

Internet access in Pakistan is controlled through:

  • Website blocking
  • Data traffic surveillance
  • State-owned online infrastructure
  • Content takedowns
  • Attacks on journalists

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) is the major Pakistani piece of legislation that governs internet censorship, with the aim to silence political and religious dissent. However, a VPN can help you circumvent PECA censorship. Read our full article to learn more.

The easiest way to get around internet censorship in Pakistan is to use a VPN. A VPN can mask your online identity and change your virtual location. That will allow you to access blocked content and exercise your online freedoms in peace. The best VPN to use in Pakistan is ExpressVPN.

Tech writer
Theodor is a content writer passionate about the newest tech developments and content marketing strategies. He likes privacy-friendly software, SEO tools, and when he's not writing, he's trying to convince people they should uninstall TikTok.