Screenshot of Google Maps showing traffic hazards in Karachi on 8 February 2024

Pakistan Elections 2024: The Unexpected Cost of Mobile Service Disruptions

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Aftab Siddiqui
Senior Manager, Internet Technology - Asia-Pacific, Internet Society
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February 13, 2024

The 10-hour Internet shutdown event in Pakistan on 8 February 2024 serves as a reminder of the critical role that the Internet plays in facilitating not only routine tasks but also the most fundamental rights of any citizen in a democratic world — the right to vote and make a living.

Read: Pakistan Elections 2024: Reports of Internet and Mobile Services Disrupted

The interim government’s decision to block mobile Internet services nationwide during its national election day was made to “maintain law and order” following two major security incidents on the night of 7 February. Fixed-line Internet broadband services were not blocked as part of the order.

In a country where more than 97% of Internet users depend on mobile broadband services, any disruption to mobile connectivity essentially equates to blocking Internet access for the entire nation.

Time series line graph showing the monthly subscription numbers of different broadband subscriptions (mobile and fixed) in Pakistan for 2023.
Figure 1 — More than 97% of the total broadband subscribers in Pakistan are mobile. Source: Pakistan Telecom Authority.

Google Maps Mayhem

In the modern era, where Internet connectivity is a cornerstone of daily activities, blocking mobile Internet services can have profound and wide-ranging consequences, many of which are unexpected.

On the morning of 8 February, one X user noted that Google Maps was showing road blockages in Karachi even though the roads were open.

Screenshot of a post on X by @norbalm noting issues with Google Maps in Karachi
Figure 2 — An X user shared screenshots from his Google Maps application showing incorrect roadblocks in Karachi. Source: X.  

Google Maps uses GPS signals from phones, mobile data, and WiFi (when and where available) to update navigation and traffic.

Most likely, Google Maps’ algorithms misinterpreted the lack of data as road blockages. In normal circumstances, a significant reduction in road traffic speed or the absence of expected mobile signals from a road could indicate heavy congestion or blockage.

Aside from these erroneous traffic reports, the inability to use Google Maps on mobile devices caused significant challenges for many citizens who wanted to locate their designated polling stations. The precise location of polling stations can change between election cycles, and for many, Google Maps is a relied-upon tool for planning their journey.

Screenshot of a post from X by @Mustafology commenting on the impact that the shutdown is having on the election.
Figure 3 — X users in Pakistan shared the impact that no mobile Internet services were having on the election. Source: X.

Moreover, In Pakistan, where serious security concerns still exist, the disruption in mobile connectivity extends beyond just navigation. In situations of emergency or when quick coordination with family members is necessary, the inability to communicate can lead to extreme anxiety and potential safety risks. Family members expecting updates from those who went out to vote might find themselves worried when unable to establish contact, causing stress on an already tense day.

Additionally, the reliance on app-based transport services, such as Careem or InDrive, has become ingrained in the logistics of daily life for many individuals in the country. The unavailability of such services due to Internet shutdowns significantly disrupted many voters’ ability to reach polling stations, especially those with mobility issues, undermining the democratic process by limiting participation.

Finally, any disruption to Internet access relates to substantial revenue loss and a direct threat to the livelihoods of countless individuals who depend on the Internet for their income, such as those in food delivery and online retail. According to the Internet Society Pulse NetLoss Calculator, the 10-hour shutdown cost Pakistan nearly USD $18.5M in lost Gross Domestic Product.

#KeepItOn

The Internet Society firmly believes that shutdowns and service blocking harm societies, economies, and the global Internet infrastructure.

Authorities and policymakers need to consider their country’s unique digital infrastructure and usage patterns when making decisions that affect Internet access.

Ensuring uninterrupted access is of the highest importance for maintaining the flow of information, enabling democratic participation, and safeguarding public safety.

In a year where we expect to see 100 elections worldwide, we sincerely hope other authorities will #KeepItOn.