Pakistan’s Sindh Province To Ban Skype, Viber For 3 Months Over Terrorist Usage, Demanding More Data Access

Pakistan is known for a long-standing ban on YouTube and occasional blocks of sites like Facebook and Twitter. Today, the government in one large part of the country said that it was planning to block two more social media services — Skype and Viber.

According to a report in the Express Tribune, the government of the Sindh province — home to over 35 million people, including those living in its capital, Karachi — is planning a three-month block of the two messaging platforms because they are being used by terrorists who want to avoid conversations getting monitored on regular mobile networks. To that end, the government apparently also is requesting further access to data being passed through networks like Viber and Skype.

The newspaper reports that for right now it’s just these two services that will be affected, although the ban could possibly also be extended to Tango and WhatsApp, the newspaper notes. It does not say when the ban will begin.

Skype has now indicated that it would be willing to talk to the Pakistan government to “discuss our views” about how services like Skype can be used.

“We’re passionate about the benefit that Skype offers to our users around the world by facilitating communication and enabling collaboration,” a spokesperson tells us. “Governments occasionally have questions about new technologies such as Skype. We are always happy to answer these and to discuss our views about how the benefits that internet innovations like Skype can offer are fully realized.”

It’s not clear from the statement whether Skype would be willing to let the government access its records or not. There has been considerable debate over how companies like Skype have responded to government requests for data access in other countries such as the U.S.

Viber has declined to comment for this story.

We also have reached out to WhatsApp for comment and will update the story as we learn more.

The decision to ban the networks was made between Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and officials from the Karachi police, intelligence agencies and others. In other words, it doesn’t sound like there has been much in the way of official dissent. It’s not a great message for freedom of speech in the country, even if those channels clearly are getting abused by some.

In a country with a lot of political strife and distribution with large geographic obstacles, communications networks are a lifeline for many ordinary, law-abiding people, too. Unfortunately, Pakistani residents are no strangers to Internet service blockages. In addition to the periodic outages from sites like Twitter and Facebook, and the extended block of YouTube, it looks like the mobile networks also get shut down periodically, also to cool down terrorist chatter.

The YouTube ban appears to be more about blasphemous content rather than direct issues related to terrorism. It is currently getting reassessed as part of a wider look at a new filtering program for digital content, much like the one used in Russia today.

Updated this story with responses from Viber and Skype.