June 8, 2013: Bolo Bhi congratulates Ms Anusha Rahman Khan on being appointed the Minister of State for Information Technology and Telecom.
Ms Rahman was a member of the National Standing Committee on Information and Technology in the previous government. She is a lawyer by profession and a member of the central working committee of the Pakistan Muslim League (N). We welcome her to her new role and are hopeful with her experience and knowledge of the subject, she will be able to resolve outstanding issues. Some pressing ones are as follows:
Restriction of access and information is a major issue. YouTube remains blocked to date. Denial of access & services have become a norm of sorts – whether to websites or to cellular services. Citizens’ democratic right to access and information have continually been trampled upon. Rather than making a name for itself in the developing world of technology, Pakistan is cited as a censorship and surveillance state in reports. Documented examples of online censorship do little to promote the country’s image (see timeline of website bans and cellular services suspension).
In a court hearing on the YouTube case – currently pending before the Lahore High Court (read more on proceedings here) – a PTA (Pakistan Telecommunications Authority) official admitted PTCL (Pakistan’s largest telecom provider that also has landing rights to the Internet in country) had procured a filtering software which would be up and running in the next month or two. Details from the government as to what the system is, why it was acquired and what it will be used for, are unclear. Official disclosure is absolutely necessary. Given the history of crackdown on information, the equipment can easily be used to restrict expression in cyberspace even further.
Earlier last year, the National R&D Fund floated a tender asking companies to submit proposals. The aim was to build a National URL Filtering system – what would have been similar to ‘The Great Firewall of China’ (see FAQs on National URL Filtering). After opposition from civil society and parliamentarians, the Ministry of IT announced they had shelved the plan.
More recently, a FinFisher server was detected on PTCL servers (read more on this here). FinFisher, created by Gamma International, is a targeted espionage equipment (read FAQs on how FinFisher equipment works), that costs approximately 300,000 Euros and can only be purchased by governments. There’s been no response from the Pakistan government explaining the detection of FinFisher servers in Pakistan, and given the country’s tainted history of espionage and targeting of dissent, this is an extremely worrisome. Even more worrying would be the fact that the equipment has been purchased and put there by another country’s government, and not Pakistan, which is also a possibility. A clear position on this is required.
What happened in the Arab world and what is currently going on in Turkey is testament to the fact that crackdowns only prove detrimental for regimes and backfire. Instead of emulating repressive regimes or leaders – internationally and locally – Pakistan has the opportunity to set a better example. Pakistan may not be known for setting good examples or for stability, but there is a chance of turning over a new leaf. There is opportunity to strengthen democratic processes by filling in the gaps where others have fallen short. A new tone can be set; one that safeguards citizens’ privacy, guarantees their right to access and information, promotes open access and supports the free flow of information.
On both the civil liberties and business front, much needs to be set right. It is necessary to change Pakistan’s image as an investor’s nightmare, and make the environment more conducive to doing business, so the local community can benefit from it. The emergence of startups and entrepreneurs is a cause for celebration. In regional conferences, Pakistani entrepreneurs are making a name for themselves and putting the country on the map for reasons other than militancy and terrorism. But to go on doing that, they require support and the removal of hurdles. Innovation is not possible in a stifled environment, or where one is plagued by concerns of costs, lack of infrastructure but even more than that, no guarantee of continued access. It is pertinent to note that while most countries enjoy 3G technology – including Afghanistan – and are moving on to 4G technology, Pakistan still awaits the sanctioning of 3G licences. In an industry with so much potential for growth, progressive and futuristic policies are the need of the hour.
We hope Ms Rahman will address these issues and play a positive role in strengthening the local industry. We are hopeful that a more inclusive policy making route will be adopted, and civil society and industry opinion will be included in the decision-making process for better growth, development and economic advancement. In the Pakistan of tomorrow, we hope to see the government uphold civil liberties, promote open access and Internet penetration.