Boomers should leave the internet alone

Published July 27, 2020
With constant meddling and moral policing from old-timers, the environment is not conducive for the tech sector even in 2020. — AFP/File
With constant meddling and moral policing from old-timers, the environment is not conducive for the tech sector even in 2020. — AFP/File

HARDLY a week ever goes by without the boomers in Islamabad and provincial capitals making a decision that shows one iota of thought or even a primitive understanding of the field they manage.

But the past month or so saw the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) coming on top of the scene and leaving the rest of its regulatory counterparts with lots of catching up to do.

It banned the famous game PUBG citing its potential physical and psychological effects on children and for being a waste of time. Earlier in June, the same regulator had asked internet users to register their virtual private networks. A few days back, it banned the streaming platform Bigo while giving a final warning to the internet’s new darling, TikTok, for promoting obscene and immoral content.

The government touts its grand vision of a Digital Pakistan on the one hand, but organisations run by its own appointees do such theatrics on the other. The Supreme Court also hinted at a possible YouTube ban, refreshing the memory of olden days of listening to music on ytpak.com.

With constant meddling and moral policing from old-timers, the environment is not conducive for the tech sector even in 2020

For his part, IT Minister Syed Amin UI Haque tried to do damage control. He spoke against such bans in a recent interview as did Tania Aidrus even if she pointed out only YouTube in her tweet. But with conflicting statements and persistent uncertainty, what kind of signal is the government sending to investors and entrepreneurs?

In fact, people reported how the services of Azure and AWS — cloud servers of Microsoft and Amazon, respectively —were affected on July 24 at 00:00 as a number of websites/apps went completely unresponsive or slow. This happened after downstream customers of the country’s two upstream providers — Transworld Associates and PTCL — were impacted.

“When users complained to their respective service providers, they investigated and were told by global T1 CSPs (communications service provider) that they are observing overall traffic dip from Pakistan. Both AWS and Azure saw a traffic dip,” tweeted NxN CEO Tariq Mustafa, an internet veteran who previously served as vice president of Multinet.

“Users reported some mobile apps not working, Zoom, Zoho and Whereby (two popular remote meeting services) were not working, software houses using Atlassian services (Jira etc) were either slow or unavailable.

“This happens when instead of completely banning something, the network operators or regulators try to ‘tweak’ things. Secure DNS (DNS over TLS) got denied as were many popular VPN infrastructure pieces such as OpenVPN that have been ‘signatured’ were blocked,” the thread continued.

PTA quickly replied by saying it “has not taken any action to block VPNs or other services related to Amazon Web Services. The information being spread on social media is not credible”.

Maybe it was a glitch, maybe it wasn’t. What we know for sure is that even in 2020, there is still no conducive environment for the tech sector, be it the subpar internet or the constant meddling and moral policing.

We can make a case that appointing unqualified people without any understanding of the subject matter to such positions is the main problem. After all, PTA’s current chairman and, by extension, the member technical — Amir Azeem Bajwa — is a retired major general with few credentials in the technology sector.

But the issue can’t just be that. Maybe government buildings are haunted and cast a spell on anyone that occupies them. That’d do a better job of explaining how the same policies continue to exist despite the presence of the other two members — of compliance and enforcement, and finance. One of them has a doctorate in telecommunications engineering and the other has had a stint as chief financial officer of Alcatel.

As if it was a competition for expressing the least nuanced understanding of technology, a prominent broadcast journalist suggested that the country should develop its own apps like China did and ban the US ones. There’s no denying the data-related risks as all proactive regulators are taking measures to ensure better data protection. But blanket bans, that too on random games and streaming apps, are certainly not the way to go. And who exactly from Pakistan will build such platforms: the state that can’t even digitise the simplest of processes or the private sector that lacks both the infrastructure and resources to pull it off?

It would take a lot more than an article to explore how opportunities have been squandered. Probably it’s too late now but then again, technology is extremely dynamic and ever-evolving. So even if we missed the bandwagon before, there still might be an opportunity to position ourselves for something else.

However, for that to really happen, state institutions have to show an actual commitment and learn to adapt themselves as per the needs of the sector. This is not an argument for deregulation. We should know where we should focus our energies.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 27th, 2020

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