Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

There is a tone that many of us experienced growing up. A wave of white noise familiar to those who have lived through the dial-up internet era. We remember hearing it when trying to go online using internet cards. And we also remember hearing it if we accidentally picked up the landline phone while someone else at home was online — this would usually result in the internet getting disconnected and was, often, followed by some yelling.

If we go back further, even having a home landline was a rarity. At a press conference during the early 2000s, Former Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh narrated an incident that took place at a wedding ceremony he was attending. He recalled that, at the wedding, there was suddenly some commotion and the family started congratulating one another. Sheikh assumed that the baraat must have arrived. But, upon inquiring, he learnt that another long-awaited party had made an appearance. Staff from the telephone department had finally come to install a landline phone for the family.

Technology has made many strides since then. Today, the landline sits idly in many households. According to DataReportal, an online platform that collects digital insights from around the world, Pakistan had over 173 million mobile connections in January 2021. The number of mobile connections in the country increased by 6.9 million (an increase of 4.2 percent) between January 2020 and January 2021.

Internet access used to be a rarity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but, thankfully, this is also no longer the case. As per DataReportal’s statistics, Pakistan had over 61 million internet users in January 2021. The number of internet users in the country rose by 11 million (or 21 percent) between 2020 and 2021.

There has been a lot of talk in the recent past about bringing Pakistan into the future and creating a ‘Digital Pakistan’. The country has also been making progress to make its ambitions a reality. But with issues of connectivity, affordability, online safety and sporadic bans still being the pressing concerns, a lot of work remains to be done

Pakistan’s digital footprint is rapidly increasing. And with the country’s large young population, it is only going to get bigger.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which often positions itself as the party of the youth, recognised this opportunity early on and has been talking about a ‘Digital Pakistan’ for a couple of years now. But while the government celebrates its forward-looking vision, many critics argue that the progress towards making this dream a reality has been slow and will require a rethink.

AN EXCITING FUTURE?

“I understand the excitement [around a ‘Digital Pakistan’],” Jehan Ara, who recently received an award for her ‘Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Digital Industry’ at the Pakistan Digital Awards 2021, tells Eos. The excitement is justified, she continues, “because with the young population that Pakistan has, the number of mobile phone users in the country and the potential that we possess as a country, going digital is the only answer to our administrative problems, our economic woes and social issues like education and healthcare access.

“So then why has the excitement not translated into actual results?” she asks, adding that we are in this situation because we do not know who is in charge. “I don’t think we have that ownership, that plan or the resources identified to make it all happen.”

But Jehan Ara is still hopeful that the change will come. “It isn’t workshops, task forces, grand schemes, large glamorous events and speeches that promise the earth that are the answer,” she says. “Make one person or ministry responsible. Give them the resources and make them answerable.”

In the recent past, different departments and individuals have spoken about making the dream of ‘Digital Pakistan’ a reality. But there has, clearly, been confusion about who does what and who will usher Pakistan towards realising its digital ambitions.

President Arif Alvi recently provided some clarity on the matter during a signing ceremony of a contract for the installation of fibre optic cable in Naushahro Feroze, Shaheed Benazirabad and Khairpur. At the event, President Alvi said that Syed Aminul Haq, the Information Techonology (IT) minister, had been given the responsibility for the development of the IT sector.

IT Minister Haq said at the event that internet connectivity was the first pillar of the Digital Pakistan initiative. This is a sentiment all stakeholders would agree with, and an aim we should make quick progress towards.

Earlier this year, the IT ministry and the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) had also signed two other agreements for laying down fibre optic cable which would enable provision of fast internet in different parts of Sindh.

These are welcome steps which would benefit millions. There is no denying that access is one of the biggest prerequisites for achieving the dream of a ‘Digital Pakistan’.

CONNECTIVITY IS KEY

White Star
White Star

‘Going digital’ is often presented as a solution for most of Pakistan’s problems. As per the Digital Pakistan Policy, put together by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT), the government of Pakistan “strives to improve its citizens’ quality of life and economic well-being by ensuring availability of accessible, affordable, reliable, universal and high quality ICT [Information Communication Technology] services.”

The government, the policy document adds, “strongly believes in the mass adoption of emerging digital technologies and innovative applications to enable cross-sector socio-economic development and transformation of economic activities, governance models, social interaction and achievement of sustainable development goals.”

There is little arguing with the fact that going digital can truly transform Pakistan. But, as the IT ministry’s own policy states, this is only possible if there is “mass adoption” of these technologies and solutions.

Farieha Aziz, co-founder of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights, says that going digital cannot result in poverty eradication “if digital Pakistan remains beyond the reach of most Pakistanis.” She adds that, if even those who have access are subjected to poor quality of service and frequent disruptions caused by regulatory decisions, the progress will be slow.

In a pre-smartphone world, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of this nation, had stated, “No nation can rise to the heights of glory unless your women are side by side with you.” Surely, his words ring true today. The dream of a Digital Pakistan cannot become a reality, unless Pakistan’s women are side by side, as equals online.

“Connectivity is a necessity in this day and age, and it should not be treated as a luxury,” says Telenor Pakistan’s chief executive officer, Irfan Wahab Khan. “We continue to work with the government and policymakers to facilitate the expansion of networks and services on our journey towards a digital society,” he adds.

Khan says that there have been many welcome recent developments from the government. These include the right of way policy (which was approved earlier this year, clearing a large number of hurdles faced by telcos — telecommunications companies — and internet service providers in the installation and maintenance of their telecommunication equipment and expansion of systems across the country), federal excise duty and withholding tax relief for the telecom sector, and the sector being granted industry status. The steps, says Khan, will impact the penetration and uptake of digital services, once implemented.

“However, at the same time,” he adds, “a recent tax imposition on mobile calls over five minutes is going to act as a major deterrent in Pakistan’s journey towards digitalisation. It is essential to create an environment that enables connectivity, instead of one that squeezes the average citizen’s ability to connect.”

Aamir Ibrahim, chief executive officer of Jazz, also urges the government not to create “further roadblocks”, referring to the recent tariff revisions. “Likewise, they increased duty structure on high-end smartphones,” he says. Ibrahim adds that smartphones should be made more affordable. He says that it is critical to provide “robust, affordable, good quality internet to all Pakistanis everywhere.”

In a previous interview with Dawn, Ibrahim had stressed the need for making newer 4G compatible smartphones more accessible. Saying that we “need to accept the lack of good mobile phone sets is one of the key barriers to growth of the internet in the country,” Ibrahim had added that, before 5G can be introduced in the country, at least 60 percent of consumers need to be using 4G.

“We need to make smartphones accessible and affordable for the common citizen, so there is true equality of access,” Telenor Pakistan’s Khan agrees. “Smartphones are the missing link when it comes to unleashing the potential of Pakistan as a truly digitally inclusive society. Smartphone penetration is greatly impacted by the affordability barrier, which has increased due to the recent taxation and fees associated with owning smartphones.”

Reducing mobile-specific taxes and duties would help to increase mobile ownership, Khan says. By working together, the operators and government can go much further in providing the people of Pakistan ease, access to quality services and opportunities to thrive, he adds.

THE BAN WAGON

Bringing people online is only one part of the equation (albeit, a very important one). But the other issues that must be addressed deal with policy, censorship and surveillance online.

One pressing issue is the frequent bans of social media platforms. While Pakistan has banned various applications over the years, the focus these days seems to be on TikTok, which has been banned thrice in the recent past. TikTok has millions of users in Pakistan, and the government has itself recognised the influence of the creators on the social media app. Government representatives met with TikTok creators multiple times since the pandemic started, to ask them to help stop the spread of Covid-19 by encouraging people to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs).

And yet, TikTok has found itself banned, time and again, for ‘spreading vulgarity’. The most recent ban, in June this year, invited the irk of Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, who tweeted that his “head is spinning” reading about the ban. The ban was later lifted.

This kind of back and forth makes it difficult to imagine the Digital Pakistan goals coming to fruition.

“Blocking access has always been a bad idea,” says Jehan Ara. “The internet and social media are just mediums. Content is created by people. The kind of content that we, as individuals or companies, put out there is our responsibility.

“Blocking access has always been a bad idea,” says Jehan Ara. “The internet and social media are just mediums. Content is created by people. The kind of content that we, as individuals or companies, put out there is our responsibility.”

“The diversity of content depends on the diverse interests of users,” she adds. “Admittedly, some of this content tends to be vulgar. That is why all social media platforms have policies that restrict content in different geographies depending on the culture and laws prevalent in those countries. Many use moderators — both human and AI [Artificial Intelligence] to ensure that the policies are followed.”

Jehan Ara believes that the way to tackle content concerns is to work closely with social media companies and local stakeholders, and to educate users. “This is the primary responsibility of educators and parents,” she says. “The government should not try to play the role of ‘parent’.”

Jehan Ara points out that, with the speed at which content is being produced globally, it would be impossible to control “what is being uploaded every second.”

By blocking social media platforms, she says, “we actually end up shooting ourselves in the foot.” She says that, while most in Pakistan use social media for personal interactions and sharing content, there are also a lot of people who use these platforms to market their businesses — especially start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises — and also expand their global network.

“When our government blocks any site, it not only impedes the business growth of these small businesses,” she says, “...it also makes investors and business partners nervous and, hence, they are resistant to investing as much as they would otherwise be prone to do.”

Consistent, forward-looking and pro-growth policies are essential for a positive image of Pakistan on the global business map, Jehan Ara adds.

Another persistent digital rights issue in the country has been online surveillance and a lack of digital privacy. According to a recent report by Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (Irada), internet freedom declined in Pakistan in 2020. The report also noted that there was a rise in “censorship, hate speech, digital surveillance and breach of privacy and disinformation and misinformation online.”

These matters must be addressed urgently if we want to see a truly Digital Pakistan.

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

White Star
White Star

Advancements in technology have, undoubtedly, attracted business and investment. The tech sector alone has transformed tremendously over the past few years. With ride-hailing and food delivery apps already being popular in cities, other services, from ones offering to send a plumber to your home to those delivering your groceries, are becoming increasingly common.

“In 2014, with the advent of 3G and 4G technology in Pakistan, we witnessed our society become more globally and digitally aware like never before,” says Telenor Pakistan’s Khan. “We were finally on the connectivity map and new opportunities began to present themselves. From ride-booking services such as Uber and Careem, to e-commerce players and food delivery apps such as FoodPanda, all began seeing Pakistan as a hub of investment.”

Accelerating digitalisation also leads to increased digital literacy and skills development, making the citizens of Pakistan more employable to digital companies, Khan adds. He points out that the Pakistani start-up ecosystem has strengthened over the years because of digitalisation. “Only in the first half of 2021, local start-ups were able to raise a record-breaking 120 million dollars in funding,” he says.

We cannot deny that the future is digital and for any economy to prosper, it will need to shift gears towards creating an environment in which digital companies can thrive, he says. “The chart below (sourced from Investment Monitor) shows a strong correlation between the average download speed of certain countries and the level of FDI [foreign direct investment] projects that they manage to attract,” he says in an email.

Khan says that, in order to attract more foreign investment, we need to ensure a conducive business environment for foreign and local companies, and focus on forward-looking policies that boost innovation and foster a sustainable digital ecosystem.

NEED FOR TRANSPARENCY

AFP
AFP

Khan points out that digitalisation of government and non-government services results in “unprecedented transparency”, which is “a key factor in curtailing corruption in society”. “A combination of all these factors make a country a lucrative destination for long-term investment,” he points out.

Transparency is also one of the key features highlighted by different government bodies when talking about a Digital Pakistan. Shabahat Ali Shah, chief executive officer of the National Information Technology Board (NITB) says, “PTI’s government is following its objective of inducing transparency, accountability and ‘ease of doing business’ for the citizens by transforming the landscape of manual government processes into digital processes.”

According to Shah, big changes are being discussed which will enable more investment and business opportunities — changes such as lowering the taxes on smartphones, increasing the inbound limit on foreign transactions, opening up inbound/ outbound dollar transfer to facilitate foreign direct investment, and improving processes to make registering companies easier.

Syed Veqarul Islam, chief executive officer of Jaffer Business Systems, an IT company, welcomes the move to digital. “Formal businesses have no choice, but to move in the direction and do the transformation,” he says. “Businesses which are not documented or want to avoid documentation continue to be evasive about the transformation. However, as the world moves forward, as technology takes control of everything in our personal and professional lives, businesses will also realise that they have no choice but to move in the direction.”

If they do not do it themselves, the system will force them to, Islam says. “There is no escape from this. It is not a question of if, but when.”

Islam calls technology “a great leveller.” To his point, technology and the shift to digital has allowed many women to start small businesses right from home — something that was unimaginable for many of them a mere few years ago.

INCLUDING THE WOMEN

While going digital has opened up opportunities for big business, it has also transformed the lives of many women who are now able to work from home. Numerous small businesses have opened up on platforms such as Instagram, with ‘mompreneurs’ selling sarees and young women becoming in-demand bakers and chefs.

These businesses often take orders online, the payments are transferred to the vendors’ accounts or are made through cash on delivery, and the orders are delivered by riders called from online delivery services.

This has changed many women’s lives.

One of the goals of the government’s Digital Pakistan policy is to empower the youth, women and girls using IT. The policy’s ‘Vision and Goals’ chapter points out that the youth and women represent roughly 60 percent and 49 percent of the population, respectively. “Ensuring women and girls have equal access to ICTs will help reduce inequalities and support gender equality,” it says.

But to ensure 49 percent of the population benefits from a Digital Pakistan, the online space also needs to be made safer for women. One issue that women continually face online (and, unfortunately, offline) is harassment. Bolo Bhi’s Farieha Aziz points out that online harassment drives many women off various platforms or makes them reduce their participation, self-censor, and limit their accounts and who they interact with.

Last year, a group of women journalists and commentators issued a statement saying that, under the current government, “coordinated” campaigns against women journalists had become the norm. They had sought protection against “vicious attacks” that routinely targeted them.

“Women in the media are not only targeted for their work, but also their gender,” the journalists said. But while promises were made to take note of this when the statement came out, little has changed for these women since.

“Targeting, attacks and harassment also take a psychological toll,” Aziz points out. “[Women] are not allowed equal participation.”

In a pre-smartphone world, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of this nation, had stated, “No nation can rise to the heights of glory unless your women are side by side with you.” Surely, his words ring true today. The dream of a Digital Pakistan cannot become a reality, unless Pakistan’s women are side by side, as equals online.

NOW CONNECTING

In 2019, when launching the ‘Digital Pakistan’ initiative, aimed at introducing the latest technology for public welfare, Prime Minister Imran Khan had said, “Our government will put all our efforts to promote Digital Pakistan. The future of Pakistan is very exciting.”

A couple of years later, NITB’s Shah gleefully declares that from 2019-2021, five times more progress has been made towards digitalisation than was made between 2009-2019.

Still, a lot of work remains.

“We all know what needs to be done. It has been documented more than once over the years,” Jehan Ara says. “Let me spell it out. Fast and affordable, uninterrupted access to connectivity across the country is key. Digitise all government services — inter-ministerial and government to citizen. Complete access to our digital identity for personal and business use — this means Nadra has to be more effective. The right policies to ensure that citizen data that is collected is secure and is owned, controlled and updated by the citizen. And the ability to make digital payments in a simple, affordable and simple manner.

“That is it!” she says. “It is as simple or as complicated as that. Now let us go do it!”

The Covid-19 lockdowns showed just how quickly the world can change and how important going digital is. “Easypaisa daily transactions increased by 17 percent during lockdowns, we saw a 35 percent increase in new activations and a 184 percent increase in bank transfers via Easypaisa,” says Telenor Pakistan’s Khan. “Similarly, about 25 percent of our customers used to digitally top-up their mobile balances — this has jumped to 36 percent after Covid-19.”

Khan says that the pandemic has undoubtedly been a catalyst for digital transformation and adoption worldwide. “Now is the time for sustaining the acceleration we’ve seen and taking our journey as a digital society forward.”


The writer is interested in Pakistan’s economy and trade. His writing has appeared in various Pakistani dailies and publications. He tweets @KhurramZiaKhan

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 25th, 2021

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