Information Technology In Pakistan

Information Technology In Pakistan

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WHY is it that all government decisions are based on circumstances or happenings as they existed fourteen centuries ago? Could it be ignorance stemming from lack of education?

The prime vital issue of the nation's education has from the birth of the country been the last on the lists of priorities of all our governments. The majority of the ministers who have been given the education and science and technology portfolios have not only been unconnected with either the field of education or of science and technology but have largely been uneducated men, the word uneducated' being here used in the profound sense of the word. For instance, in the last two governments, the second for both Benazir and Nawaz, Benazir's federal education minister was one Khurshid Shah, building contractor by profession, and Nawaz's, of all people, the proven corrupt and uncouth Ghous Ali Shah. And this in a land where the world's first university was established in 700 BC at Taxila, the ruins of which still stand at a few miles distance from the capital city.

By comparison, the government of General Pervez Musharraf has chosen an educationist as its education minister and the science and technology portfolio has been handed over to a scientist, Professor Dr Atta-ur-Rahman. Professor Rahman, in a speech delivered at Islamabad last Friday, told his audience that good governance is not possible without there being a merit-based challenging education system." If Pakistan wishes to forge ahead, he rightly said, education must be the main priority. Worthy of remark is the startling fact that the total GDP of all the Islamic countries put together is half that of Germany and a quarter of that of Japan in spite of the fact that the Islamic countries control 74 per cent of the world oil business. This low GDP rating is the result of a low level of education, the only area in which countries such as Germany and Japan have the advantage.

Now for the bad news. Information technology and the Internet are controlled by the antiquated inefficient Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited which is overstaffed, and is incapable of even publishing a telephone directory which lists current information. The present board members of PTCL who direct the affairs of the company are: Bureaucrat Abu Shamim Arif, Secretary Information Technology and Telecom Division, a flip-flop non-technical man; Zafar Ali Khan, Secretary Privatization Commission; Major General Mohammad Tariq,

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described as Signal Officer in Chief'; Mohammad Yunis Khan, Secretary Finance Division, Finance Ministry; Arshad Mahmud, Member Finance PTCL; Akhtar Ahmad Bajwa, Member Operations PTCL; Dr Altamash Kamal of Xibercom; Dr Awais Kamal, Managing Director of LT Engineering and Trade Services (Pvt) Ltd; Syed Mazhar Ali, Chairman IT Commission; Zafar Usmani, CEO Mobil Oil Pakistan (Pvt) Ltd; Fakir Aijazuddin, Chairman Arts Council Lahore; Barrister Rafiuddin Ahmed of Orr Dignam; Syed Zahoor Hasan, Associate Dean of LUMS; Asghar Dawood Habib, Chairman Habib Sugar.

These men have been asked to provide an undertaking one clause of which states: I am not a defaulter in repayment of any loan amounting to Rs.1 million or more as adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction or a tribunal within the meaning of Section 187(1) of the Companies Ordinance 1984. "This ipso facto means that if one of them is a defaulter to the tune of Rs.999,999 he is qualified to sit on the board. Another undertaking stipulates : I shall, to the utmost of my capability, ensure and safeguard the interests of the government in PTCL during the tenure of my directorship. Any lapse shall make me liable to be proceeded against under the relevant laws."

With due respect to all, it is difficult to conceive of a respectable responsible individual putting his pen to either of these two undertakings? After all, there is no compulsive reason, no guns are held to any heads. Should they not be guided by the dictates of their consciences and what is good for the people?

More bad news. PTCL is establishing two National Access Points (NAP) in Karachi and Islamabad to block Internet telephony and pornographic websites. (APP, July 13.)

The NAP aims at directing all Internet traffic in and out of the country through two PTCL controlled gateways. Whilst this is still a proposal, it is increasingly obvious that elements within PTCL, with the tacit support of our insecurity agencies and other government elements, are trying to push it through as fast as possible.

This must be vehemently opposed. It is fundamentally faulty and has the potential to cause catastrophic damage to the information infrastructure of the country.

One fundamental and obvious principle of network design is the provision of multiple pathways. The more pathways there are, the more robust the resulting network. To some extent we already have this redundancy in our exiting Internet access, but rather than introducing additional pathways to the Net, the NAP proposal aims at reducing these to two choke points to be controlled by our very own PTCL, an organization renowned for its unreliability, inefficiency, incompetence, and zero-level customer service.

Within the next few years, global services will permit direct satellite access. If the NAP logic is followed, these services would also be illegal in Pakistan. Is this what a country endeavouring to leapfrog into the information age should be doing?

NAP also raises the question: are we serious about attracting foreign investment in information technology (IT) when we have an organization intent on controlling and dictating as to which pathways the people may use to access the net? Even the relatively totalitarian UAE now allows direct rooftop-to-satellite Internet connectivity, completely bypassing the Etisalat Infrastructure. And here we are, proposing the reverse.

PTCL itself admits that it has no way in which it can estimate the revenue lost to Internet telephony. The number being thrown around is $ 2.8 million per year which is at best an exaggerated guesstimate, and a figure which amounts to less than a fifth of one per cent of PTCL's total revenue. Is this minuscule
loss sufficient justification to thwart and sabotage a national objective - the swift expansion of IT in Pakistan?

With two years to go until PTCL's monopoly expires, is it not time that it started to experience the real world, where markets dictate tariffs, where better technologies replace the obsolete, where customers decide what services to use, where only the efficient and competent survive? Rather than all this, PTCL is aiming at retaining its monopoly over international data traffic and hoodwinking the nation in the process.

NAP also smacks of Big Brother. In a country such as this, it is likely that NAP will be used to block access to information that someone decides will damage national security' or the ideology of Pakistan' or the national moral fibre'. Does not NAP itself raise national security concerns by providing enemies within and without with exactly two large targets to take out if they wish to cut off the entire country's access to the Net?

That there are minds in Islamabad in this 21st century which are seriously considering this proposal is, sadly, not surprising. After all, not so long ago capital minds did consider e-mail messages from MQM supporters abroad sufficient cause to ban the Internet in Pakistan. However, all should take heart from the fact that Pakistan has survived the fax machine and the satellite dish, both of which were delayed for years as the same convoluted reasoning was used against them as is now being used to justify NAP.

The ball is in the court of Minister Herr Doktor Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, in charge of information technology and of the dreadful PTCL. Academically, he was a First Division student, he has a PhD and a Sc D from King's College, Cambridge, of which college he was a Fellow from 1969 to 1973 when he was discovered by one of the greatest scientists of Pakistan, Dr Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, and brought to the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry at the Karachi University.

At HEJ he was responsible for buying certain equipment from Japan. When the Japanese offered him a kickback of around Rs.25 million, he asked them to donate the amount to his Institute, which they did. He is a cousin of the people's barrister, Mohammad Gilbert Naim-ur-Rahman, and grandson of our good judge, Sir Abdur Rahman. We can surely trust him to take the right decision as to NAP or no NAP. He would surely rather continue to meely direct the affairs of HEJ, which he still does, than to additionally remain a minister and do wrong.
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