News Desk |
Federal Minister for Information Technology & Telecommunication since June 2013. Anusha graduated with LLB and worked as a corporate lawyer until she became a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan in 2008. The Disruptions Minister transforming Pakistan’s digital landscape: Anusha Rehman
GVS: Did you know much about technology before becoming the Minister of State for IT?
Anusha Rehman: I have actually spent more than 20 years in the telecom sector as a lawyer. During the 2008-13 government, I was a member of the standing committee of IT. Later, as a member of the PML-N manifesto committee, I had the honour of writing the science, technology and IT& Telecom chapter of our manifesto in 2013. That manuscript has driven the bulk of the work we have been able to accomplish in the field during this tenure.
There is a mechanism for allowing the use of the motorway – the speed limit, the tariff, and the motorway police etc.
GVS: You have been able to achieve so much. Do you put that down to the fact that you stayed in this ministry for a full term of five years?
Anusha Rehman: If you placed the wrong person in any professional role, even for 50 years, it’s not going to bring any change. I strongly believe that some ministries in the federal government should be given to people who have a fair idea of the sector like finance ministry, telecom ministry and energy ministry. These are all specialized ministries; you just cannot expect to achieve results by placing someone there who doesn’t have the requisite background knowledge or experience of the sector.
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GVS: What were some of the key challenges you faced upon entering the ministry?
Anusha Rehman: You cannot enter a place and expect to deliver from day one. There is a structure in place that you inherit and that structure asks for continuity. When I entered, there were a host of structural problems as well as lingering issues that needed immediate attention. A plethora of grey traffic incoming international traffic is one example of such issues. The white minutes or legally delivered minutes as you would call them, which were around 2 billion had come down to around 400 million, grey traffic was at its peak. There were over 18 to level and strategically important vacancies in the Ministry itself and departments associated to the MoIT&T where almost all senior positions were either ad hoc or vacant.
There was no activity in PTA as the Authority was not completed, hence it lacked the legal mandated. Entering in such an environment is not easy. Moreover, Pakistan was still using 2G spectrum, whilst, 3G had been in use in many parts of the world since 2000, even 4G was introduced worldwide in 2010; which we were finally able to introduce in Pakistan after breaking all deadlocks and overcoming all barriers in 2013. Our major target was to immediately make the process for frequency spectrum assignment operational; a process that had faltered many times during the PPP government’s time. The last Telecom policy review had taken place in 2003-2004.
To reactivate the process, we needed a full human resource team which we were AlhamdoLillah able to hire purely on merit. Ministry of IT, could not do the whole process itself since there was a major vacuum in PTA. According to the law, the policy of spectrum should be given by the Ministry of IT and execution of its assignment to licensees after a transparent competitive process is done by the PTA so MOIT and the PTA work at arm’s length. Policy directive is given on the basis of PTA’s and FAB’s input of the availability of the spectrum, and this is the structure of the process.
PTA had to appoint a consultant for market analysis and valuation of the spectrum to be offered to the industry through the auction mechanism. The Consultant carries out consultation with the industry to arrive at the optimal design of the process meets all process and statutory requirement. This refocus of energy and adherence to the best practice helped us conduct the auction which was globally acclaimed by the GSMA for the soundness of process and transparency and the market development that emanated is evident to everybody.
GVS: Are we at a level playing field with the rest of the world like India, Turkey and China?
Anusha Rehman: Yes, we were even lagging behind Afghanistan in 2013, but after introducing 3G & 4G together in 2014, we moved ahead of countries like Turkey at that specific point in time. The market development for mobile broadband has been phenomenal which stands at more than 52 Million (more than 56 Million overall i.e. fixed + mobile) users today as compared to negligible in 2013.
That manuscript has driven bulk of the work we have been able to accomplish in the field during this tenure.
GVS: Why are there so few people using broadband in households?
Anusha Rehman: Broadband in homes is a fixed line internet, known as DSL. It is different from mobile broadband technology. DSL requires expensive last mile infrastructure, a computer and monthly rent, which becomes too expensive for the average household. However, we have placed 9000 km of optical fiber cable using the USF funds which cater to the infrastructure requirements of not only providing fixed internet to the home but also connecting mobile towers for better bandwidth to the mobile broadband users.
GVS: Is Telecom structure being developed in Gilgit Baltistan?
Anusha Rehman: Yes, you have to. Back in Mr. Bhutto’s era, no one used to go to the far-flung areas, so the SCO was set up to develop the infrastructure in such non-commercially viable areas. Now mobile companies also operate there and due to the competitiveness of the market, all operators are ready to launch next-generation mobile broadband services as soon as the auction in those territories is conducted under a policy directive from AJK and Gb Councils. Successful service tests have been done by all operators and very soon they will be at par with the rest of the country.
GVS: what were other issues you had to tackle upon entering the ministry?
Anusha Rehman: When we entered the Government in 2013 the YouTube was blocked, grey traffic was at a peak, telecom policy review was due for many years. Key positions in the Ministry and attached departments were vacant, Cyber Crime Law had to be enacted. There was no progress on Technology Parks. We took on all these issues; there was a successful resolution of YouTube closure after localization of YouTube domain. We Finalized Integrated Telecom sector policy, addressed the menace of grey traffic, enacted Cyber Crime law, filled in vacancies on merit, and focused work was done on establishment of Technology Parks.
GVS: What were the key elements that you wanted to introduce into the policy which was not there previously?
Anusha Rehman: In the previous policies, there were no guiding principles for competition framework or spectrum policy catering to the market mechanism for spectrum reuse including sharing of spectrum and reframing of the spectrum. The spectrum allocation process was accordingly transactional and inflexible. International standards were defined but they were not assigned in Pakistan, that is, for 3G, 4G or 5G, so our new policy took care of these shortcomings.
No one can use the spectrum unless such assignments are formally defined. Look at it like roads: there is a motorway, highway and a farm road. You’ve got the motorway but you’re not allowing people to use it, you are using the highway or the farm road because we haven’t decided what will be the terms and conditions of using the motorway. There is a mechanism for allowing the use of the motorway the speed limit, the tariff, and the motorway police etc. the whole scheme was not prepared.
By 2005, we had these new operators coming into the mobile sector, which created more space but then you also have to keep on optimizing and introducing new technologies. This was not done due to lack of policy handling until 3G/4G was introduced in Pakistan by us in 2014 under a specific policy directive. The most important element is the way you utilize the frequency spectrum to deliver these services into the hands of the users- you need to have a wholesome policy. The Telecom Policy 2015 brought out by the present Government was also acclaimed globally and Pakistan won “Government Leadership Award” in 2017 at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
GVS: Once the spectrum was defined, were you able to sell it?
Anusha Rehman: We did not dispose of all of it in one go. First of all, the spectrum is only leased out for 15 years. This is Pakistan’s own property. It is only given on rent for a certain number of years, but the spectrum remains unscratched no degradation takes place. We can re-use it for new technologies. The spectrum is a mode to communicate, and several technologies concurrently as well as those that come up in the future can use it. Spectrum space can be leased out to whoever legitimately acquires it for any technology developed; so you don’t bind people to 20 years old technology. Just because of the professionally sound policy and auction process we adopted for spectrum use we can see that the market which less than 3% broadband penetration when we entered, has now increased to 38% of the total mobile users.
GVS: Is this penetration comparable to the penetration in India or Turkey?
Anusha Rehman: Not only that, but it is equivalent to one Estonia (around 1 million users) added every month on our 3G and 4G network. We introduced 3G and 4G together to seed transition to most current mobile broadband technology. So, we offered 4G spectrum to anyone who was going to buy 10 Megahertz (MHz) of the 3G spectrum. We also introduced 10 MHz of 4G spectrum which then Zong was able to win in 2014. They had a first mover advantage and hence, created a market for 4G after acquiring their license.
GVS: Have you provided a level playing field for these giants like Telenor, Zong and Jazz?
Anusha Rehman: Yes, it is the job of the ministry of IT to create a balance and not have a policy that results in over-regulation of the sector because it leads to strangulation or might scare away businesses. You have to maintain balance in a way that you can reap an optimum value for the spectrum as a lease rent, and at the same time, you have to leave enough money in their pockets so that they can invest in the infrastructure because infrastructure deployment is expensive.
GVS: Do you think that we have an optimum number of players in the market right now or do you think we could do with more or less?
Anusha Rehman: At the moment, you will see that we have very affordable prices for both voice and broadband data products due to strong competition and hence low Average Revenue per User (ARPU) for the operators. The broadband rate in Pakistan is far more affordable than the US, UK, Europe or anywhere in the world, because of the competition.
Successful service tests have been done by all operators and very soon they will be at par with the rest of the country.
Although low prices are good from user perspective but the ARPU situation is not an instant attraction for entry of new players in the market. I mean if you look at even a high ARPU market like the USA, they have consolidated back to around 3-4 players and what we have now in our market are 4 players. Experts say that 3 or 4 players in an optimum size.
GVS: That’s an interesting point. But at the same time, don’t you need a market loop rate for these companies?
Anusha Rehman: That’s where the policies come in. In Pakistan, every year over 20,000 IT students graduate. We used to have a very niche telecom market, where there was no expertise for 3G and so on. By introducing new technologies, we have allowed new graduates to work and because all these operators are international players, employees benefit from learning international practices as the companies rotate their human resources in all the markets they operate.
Jazz has converted Pakistan into a hub for resource development. So now, it is providing Pakistani human resource capital to all its markets. The markets in which they work are now not just voice telecoms but also for data and digitization. They are entering the digital world, where for example, Telenor is laying a strong focus on e-agriculture, Jazz is supporting incubation and startups they even won the NIC project with us. They are all getting into digitization. Digital inclusion is also bringing in financial inclusion. The operators now have one bank attached to them. You can open a bank account on your mobile in 30 seconds. Technological advancement is diversifying the business of the mobile operators and this diversification brings in revenue to them and value to the users and society.
GVS: How are technologies like Whatsapp and Telegram eating into the revenues of the telecom companies and the government?
Anusha Rehman: They don’t eat into the revenues because people spend money on broadband access to avail these services you mentioned. So instead of charging a Rupee per minute, operators charge on per byte basis. The broadband access is getting charged regardless of what application is running on it. Hence, they are still making money and we still get revenues.
GVS: What does holding a spectrum auction involve?
Anusha Rehman: Once we made and implemented the policy directive for the spectrum auction, PTA hired a consultant, who some market research and recommended a certain base price as well as the design of the auction and other terms etc. PTA held the auction and managed to sell the entire spectrum except for 2 blocks i.e. 10 MHz in 1800 and 10 MHz in 850 Megahertz bands. However, most importantly, we sold 10 megahertz of 1800 MHz suited to 4G deployment to Zong, which initiated the 4G market. Zong started rolling out its 4G network in January 2015.
Our current policy is meant to enable true declaration by the way of incentives so that true scale and size of our industry is registered globally and hence more investments based on true industry scale can be attracted.
In the second round of spectrum auction in 2016, Telenor got 850 Megahertz. Jazz was in the process of consolidation. Then was another round in the following year 2017, when Jazz won the 1800 MHZ spectrum. Both spectrums blocks are optimally used for 4G. The bottom line is that the market and the growth enabled due to 2014 allowed us to lease the further spectrum.
GVS: So how much did the government end up making?
Anusha Rehman: Almost around $ 2.2 Billion and this was from rent, not a sale. We kept a payment mechanism that allowed for either full upfront payment or half up front and a half over 5 years with annual markup applied at KIBOR + 3% (lending and borrowing rates quoted by banks). Zong paid up front after that Jazz did the same and others also followed. So the bulk of revenue was realized upfront for the national exchequer
GVS: Why are we not ensuring that major phone companies like Apple, Samsung and others are based here?
Anusha Rehman: The first thing is that the real market relevant to today i.e. mobile broadband is barely 2-3 years old. I strongly believe that in Pakistan, technology has come as a revolution rather than as an evolution. When you do things in an evolutionary mechanism, your policies, your laws and your ecosystem get built gradually. When it happens as it did here – at a fast track – then your laws, policies and regulations can’t keep up with the pace.
If it had come in gradually, after the 2G market was set up, the Government could have decided where we will be in 5-10 years and so on. If there was consistency, the world could see that Pakistan is growing, that it is moving ahead from 2G there is steady evolution in the market. If people had the confidence, they would start showing a willingness to increase local presence, putting up manufacturing units, asking for economic zones etc. and we would have, by now, the whole value chain of the mobile industry in the country.
But companies did not see a consistency of policy previously; thus, investors remained sceptical. Pakistan is still very young in handling technology seriously. In India, the focus on IT started 40 years ago. For Pakistan, recognizing ICT as an industry was very recent. All these things matter in the decision of global players to set up their foreign presence and outposts.
GVS: What are you doing to encourage the technology industry?
Anusha Rehman: The government implemented a startup package, last year where we provided incentives to tech startups by lowering their tax to 2%. There were additional incentives for entrepreneurs and startups. Last year for the first time, allowed them to set up foreign currency accounts, in which they can receive their dollar income.
The broadband rate in Pakistan is far more affordable than the US, UK, Europe or anywhere in the world, because of the competition.
If you will not allow them to have foreign currency accounts, where will they put the money they receive in dollars and how can they withdraw? We are attempting to increase IT exports and making sure that the money, come through the recognized channels of State Bank. IT export is actually 4 times the amount as to what State Bank shows as the money from exports is not totally repatriated or is repatriated under wrong accounting heads. Our current policy is meant to enable true declaration by the way of incentives so that the true scale and size of our industry is registered globally and hence more investments based on true industry scale can be attracted.
GVS: IT exports are said to be around $3 billion?
Anusha Rehman: $3.3 billion. But they bring only $900 million back into the country as I mentioned, there are lots of reasons for this. We have, as the federal government, considered IT as an up and coming sector. This, with some handholding, has the capacity to go up to $10 billion or more by 2020. To become so, it requires some structural adjustments in the system. The only sector in the last 5 years that has given more than 125% growth is the IT sector. The other sectors are lagging behind despite getting their incentives.
In 2013, we had 325 companies on the Pakistan Software Export board now we have 1800 companies. We gave them incentives, told them how to bring back their money under correct codes of the State Bank, gave them international exposure, took them to different conferences, promoted capacity building and helped them get internationally acceptable certifications for them. In the last 5 years, we have done so much for them that they have given us the growth of 125%.
GVS: Let’s talk about the grey traffic issue. What was the issue there and how did you manage to overcome it?
Anusha Rehman: This is related to international voice traffic coming into Pakistan and terminating on either the fixed or mobile phones in the country. There was a regime, previously put in place, that despite having a competitive market with numerous players mandated to bring in the traffic, these players or LDI operators managed to form a consortium or cartel under government policy where only one gateway was allowed for incoming traffic, a high price was fixed for all foreign destinations and the revenue was distributed as per operator size quota.
High prices resulted in arbitrage and gave illicit players opportunity to circumvent legal channel and bring in traffic illegally analogous to smuggling of goods bypassing customs duties etc. The grey or smuggled traffic was outside of the legal loop and it allowed millions of minutes to come into Pakistan per month illegally. However, white traffic minutes dropped from 2 billion to near 400 million per month.
The bottom-line is that the market and the growth enabled due to 2014 allowed us to lease the further spectrum.
Incoming rates are what people, for example, from the USA had to pay to their operators to call Pakistan their operators instead of sending them through legal channels at the high fixed rate handed them over to some grey traffic operator here to save costs. This meant that the government, as well as legal operators, did not get the benefit of international revenue. So, we did a complete review of the situation in 2014, to see what measures could be taken to curb this practice.
The policy was reformulated, the gateways were deregulated and the tax was reduced to ensure that the smugglers’ incentive was reduced. White traffic then jumped back to 1.6 billion per month. This could not have gone back to original ~ 2 Billion minute/month because now we see increasing reliance of expatriates and foreign callers on internet platforms like WhatsApp and Skype video calls for calling in.
This issue that we handled was much bigger and dangerous than it seems. Nobody even realized what sort of money was involved. Just multiply 5 cents with 2 billion minutes a month and you get an idea.
GVS: How does the Government ensure the private sector’s help to develop the market?
Anusha Rehman: The government maintains a Universal Services Fund through funding by telecom who give 1.5 % of their revenues into the USF annually. It is sort of like trust money, which the ministry holds for the purpose of utilizing it to fund telecom service development in underserved and unserved areas thereby ubiquitously developing the market. The spending patterns and framework for the USF, however, was not optimal and the fund was underspent. We have made sure that this money is put to best possible use through a properly structured policy and transparent accounting mechanism.
GVS. How much is the Universal Services Fund and what kind of projects did you use it on?
Anusha Rehman: It was about 67 billion Rupees when I came in and we have managed to spend quite a bit of it on providing services to far-flung areas including remotest parts of Baluchistan KPK and FATA. Basically, we channelized those resources for development. We realized that less than 3 percent of broadband means that most people do not have connectivity.
Therefore, to connect the people, we auctioned 3G/4G spectrum; The operators rolled out service in commercially viable areas as per absolute mandates of their licences but a further large percentage of the population in areas where operators would not extend services quickly due to lack of business case had to be quickly covered or else it would have taken too long for wide cross-section of populace to be able to access the benefits of digitalisation.
We did this through 14 projects – around 26 billion Rupees investment on telecom infrastructure was made only in Baluchistan. This is the largest one-time telecom development package that has gone into Baluchistan, with a target of broadband development connecting every mauza or village with 100 population. We went to places like Mastung, Loralai, Zhob, Sibbi, Mashkhel, Chaaghi, Dera Bugti and all other remotest parts of Baluchistan and most of these projects will be completed by December 2018.
I call it the e-highway of technology. Nine thousand kilometres of optic fibre cable is now laid to enable this broadband service delivery and all paid from the Universal Services Fund. Going forward we are refocussing USF and other resources like National ICT R&D Fund on the demand side providing programs to build the utility of broadband coverage for the socio-economic benefit of the masses.
We will spread the benefits of technology to these children, girls and other segments to use the whole digital platform to enable them to enhance their socio-economic stratum. For increased utility, we need to teach them how to use technology for education, how to enhance your growth in the agriculture sector and for reaching out and providing health care services at par with urban areas.
Although these subjects belong in provincial domains with the ministries historically oblivious to technology powered opportunity, the agriculture and education and health ministries also are now realizing that the digital platform is the road to be taken.
GVS. Are the other ministries cooperating with you?
Anusha Rehman: Initially not as you know there is always resistance to change – but as they see results of our initiatives the are beginning to start. e-commerce is one of the most important sectors for powering the future economy of Pakistan. We need to bring Micro small and medium business online, who do not yet know the benefits of online commerce or lack the capacity to go online. Local estimates suggest that the e-commerce market is around 500 million to 1 billion dollars in Pakistan. You can imagine the eco-system, the jobs and the wholesale and retail market around it that can be enabled to benefit the economy.
Nine thousand kilometres of optic fibre cable is now laid to enable this broadband service delivery and all paid from the Universal Services Fund.
We have to understand that commerce is the job of the commerce ministry; health is the job of the health ministry, agriculture is the job of the agriculture ministry, not MOIT. But due to the involvement of technology, everything has sort of become a job for the IT Ministry and if we won’t take these initiatives in other sectors at least for the start then no one will.
The digitization to drive socio-economic growth is now a part of the mainstream business of the telecom industry as well. As you can see, the mobile operators are championing the digital platforms themselves; like Telenor championing the farmer’s enablement and Jazz helping young entrepreneurs. Governments are very conservative while entering in those areas but we have no choice but to partner with ICT industry players and take the digitalization route for fast-paced development in these key and important sectors.
GVS: Is there any particular program the Ministry has worked on that you are particularly proud of?
Anusha Rehman: I call the Ministry of IT as disruptive ministry now because we have actually disrupted the way government has historically worked. We entered the education sector through the ICT for Girls program. We convinced the USF Board on which industry partners also sit that we need to channelize the resources into the use of ICT for education and skill development for women and girls – even though education is now a devolved subject. We reached out to the poorest sections in more than 150 Baitul Maal Women Empowerment Centres (WECs), where girls were coming to learn basic skills, like painting, cooking and sewing.
Our broadband labs program there coupled with world-class skill development training for trainers form Microsoft was designed to teach the girls in these centres technology skills to boost their employability potential and to help them get work from all over the world through online platforms from the privacy of their homes. We partnered with Microsoft who offered 4 Cs skill development training to the beneficiaries as part of their corporate social responsibility. They gave us software, training and the curriculum. It was a woman driven project.
We went to the Baitul Mall, Women Empowerment Centres put the computer labs there, trained the teachers, gave them the curriculum and delivered our message. The most important part is that even the most conservative parents have found trust in our program and effort and are letting them come and learn digital skills, even if they have to commute for 2 hours. Now even the UN Women wants to be a partner in the program. We have also expanded this program to all 226 Girls schools managed by the Federal Directorate of Education schools in Islamabad.
Broadband labs have been set up in these schools and new graduate teachers hired. They were given training from Microsoft and then started their classes. Our first batch of 110,000 girls who will benefit from this program annually has already started to learn to code. Our children need to reach out to the knowledge platform using computing resources broadband connectivity and to learn how to code to be competitive. If we don’t start it from a young age to build aptitude for technology-driven education and carriers later, we cannot be successful in really enabling the technology revolution opportunity for our youth.
GVS: How did Jack Ma of Alibaba arrive on Pakistan’s scene?
Anusha Rehman: Well the disruptive ministry, entered the domain of the commerce ministry by initiating work on the whole e-commerce policy framework. We spoke to the State Bank, got the regulations done for payment systems and e-commerce gateways. After the initial work, there was a need to evoke major e-commerce players interest in this segment in Pakistan and I have met Mr. Jack Ma – founder of the Ali Baba Group – and his team three times already. I tried encouraging them to think about Pakistan as a market in which they could come and invest.
They were not willing to just come and start afresh have but ultimately they started acquiring stakes in players in the e-commerce and digital payments space. We also realized that it is important for us to demonstrate e-commerce through practical measures. What’s required is, actually, an e-commerce portal to take Micro and Small business online complete with e-marketing, digital payments and logistics components, to provide a fully integrated “Made in Pakistan” portal. The commerce ministry which should have enabled this in the first place did not have any plans.
We are going to bring in the manufacturers, artisans, carpet, leather manufacturers, and the furniture industry and so on onto this portal. All the unsung heroes of Pakistan will be handheld by the IT ministry and brought online. We expect the revenue in the next five years is going to be somewhere between 500 Million to a billion dollars, just from the people who are already there in the market and have a supply chain and now they will use technology as their sale platform as well. From e-commerce, we entered it to another area, innovation and entrepreneurship, which we felt was very much needed to help over 20 thousand university graduates, who mostly cannot find jobs.
Therefore, we decided to help them through encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship as the way forward help them through mentoring into setting a technology-driven start-up which has a commercial sense. We launched the program through the Ignite company which is the implementation arm of Ministry’s National ICT Research and Development Fund to set up start-up incubators, of which we now have four, placed in Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi. The last one of the network of these NICs in Quetta will be inaugurated the end of this month as well. This network of NICs will help about two hundred plus start-ups, which are being mentored by the experts of the field.
GVS: Looking at another aspect of your ministry you took a very important step in re-opening YouTube in Pakistan. What kind of challenge was that?
Anusha Rehman: YouTube was closed to implement an SC order to curtail access to a particular blasphemous video titled ‘Innocence of Muslims’ on the platform and as you know blasphemy is completely unacceptable something that no Muslim can tolerate. The objectionable video could not be removed at that time by the government in 2012, so they decided to block the whole website. Government and PTA engaged YouTube to ensure that they localize YouTube in Pakistan and that every single copy of ‘Innocence of Muslims’ was removed as identified by PTA. It was a huge exercise that was undertaken, and it took some time.
YouTube was localized as a result of our engagement with Google with the complete understanding that the moment any blasphemous content appears and is identified, they will remove it as soon as possible. They have created a Pakistani (.pk) platform for YouTube and that’s why they are obliged to, at least for this domain, remove that material. We did not have that relationship previously.
The localized version allows conversion of the language as well, hence, we now have the opportunity to access the platform through local languages including Urdu, Sindhi, Pushto and many others. This was not possible before. Successful resolution of the YouTube closure after long painstaking engagement with Google and which happened only after localization of YouTube domain is an example of structured stakeholder engagement and success of technology diplomacy.
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GVS: You have talked a lot about the need for defining cybersecurity and protection of cyberspace establishing online rights at par with offline rights. What do you mean?
Anusha Rehman: Pakistan has been actually leading this discourse for the last four years on all global platforms and we have been recognized as thought leaders on this important subject which was previously a taboo. We have managed to get even the World Economic Forum to discuss cybersecurity and set up a subject-specific platform. Before that, nobody wanted to talk about cybersecurity, security online or privacy.
Every country has its own constitution, laws, culture and religious values. For us, freedom of expression has certain constraints set up by the constitution. Article 19 is our governing article in the Constitution. The West does not care about the impact of technology on certain values, culture and religion in the way we do and our constitution requires. We as a sovereign country, want our constitutional provisions to be recognized in the world. I, as a Pakistani citizen, want my constitution and the offline rights of my citizens provided by the constitution to be respected in the globalized online world as well.
So, the voice of the Pakistan government on all the international forums has been as follows: We speak for the rights of the citizens of Pakistan to be respected and governed in the same manner online as they are offline; Pakistan’s sovereignty is not only within the terrestrial boundary horizontally but also vertically and in cyberspace. That’s the reason why in our domestic domain we formulated the cybercrime law. There was huge resistance even to enactment of this law in Pakistan because commercial interests were driving the discourse on its enactment and ultimate the fate of this bill. The moment you put any restrictions on the internet, it means you are hindering the commercial interests of big internet platforms.
I don’t remember anybody, other than IT Ministry, in the last 5 years who has advocated more for equality of offline-online rights. We are getting the attention of the world; developing countries and the Muslim countries are asking for their online space to be secured and to protect sovereign rights in cyber space. I don’t want to name the minister of that Muslim country who shared his predicament with me that he had been working for a similar law in his country but the backlash was so immense that he was not able to move ahead.
The moment you try to make any law concerning this, you almost always get a reaction. Let’s say that you tell a company to remove certain content from their platform because it is illegal or is invading someone’s privacy, the companies would have an easy retort that they are not governed by the Pakistani Law and unless you have made a domestic law that says what they are doing is illegal, they don’t have to listen to you. The purpose of having laws is to manage the content as per your own culture, values, law and the constitution.
GVS. Your government was heavily criticised for passing the Prevention of Electronic crimes bill and curtailing freedom of expression. How do you justify going ahead on this?
Anusha Rehman: Yes, from certain quarters of the civil society including some NGOs but we need to realize Who are these NGOs lobbying the cause and who is funding them? You have to understand that social media is the tool used for the propaganda and lobbying purpose where any issue can be framed however the vested interests want. The same hashtags were used here for social media propaganda – when we were making the cybercrime law – that were used in Indonesia two years ago when they were making their cybercrime law.
So, how does the lobby work? The vested global corporate interest pitches in when you try to bring any legislative action to implement constitutional mandates. They start campaigns against you. They bring out some civil society champions and NGOs, fund them and unleash propaganda under the garb of freedom of expression. They know how to do it because they have done it in dozens of countries already. If you are a weak minister, you will step back. If you are a strong minister and you have Allah with you, you will still forge ahead for bringing the enactment.
So, that’s one thing that we have managed to get. Now that we have law supporting us, we can engage with companies like Google and other platforms, without leaving them legal right to refuse our requests meant to give equity to online and offline rights of our citizens.
GVS: What are the challenges that you are leaving behind for your successor?
Anusha Rehman: The biggest challenge for my successor will be to think like a mother, the same mindset that drove my actions on the initiatives that I have mentioned. Otherwise, your policy could easily get distorted and lose steam. When I say that you have to think like a mother, it has many facets to it. The first facet is that you want to secure your child, the second facet is that you want to develop your child and the third facet is praying for your child. All three facets make you the person that you are and that person, I define as a mother.
The second thing is that we have done a lot of work on the development and we are going through change management. Our e-governance project is about conducting official work and communications electronically without using traditional files. However, we are still faced with the change management issues and those will need to be addressed. Also, cybersecurity threats are so widespread, we do not want to introduce e-governance without addressing those issues and the coming dispensation will have to work diligently on these matters.
The most important thing, after thinking like a mother, is how you will secure your cyberspace. We need to have the requisite systems and firewalls, cyber security and cyber governance frameworks before adopting further technology, ensuring all the cyber doors are properly manned and guarded. The security above the two kilometres of the ground commonly referred to the security of cyberspace is as important as your border.
The third most important thing is to continue to support the agenda of the day, of any development that is required to be done through technology, without taking away your offline rights. Your offline rights in a country like Pakistan or even in your global existence have to be secured online. Anything that is not allowed on the print medium, electronic medium or physically, should also not be allowed virtually.