Usama Khilji, a research associate at Bolo Bhi, discusses Bolo Bhi’s recent study analyzing internet policymaking in Pakistan which makes suggestions for crafting ideal internet policy. Click here to learn more about Bolo Bhi.
Internet policymaking in Pakistan has been an uphill task for all stakeholders involved, a process whereby the government justifies proposals for greater control over internet activity with language about security and counter-terrorism while other stakeholders, especially civil society and technology-related businesses, mobilize campaigns to resist such attempts. Through our research on the internet policymaking landscape in Pakistan, our team at Bolo Bhi has interviewed key internet policymaking stakeholders to identify the main drivers of Pakistan’s incoherent internet policy: these issues include lack of expertise on technology related matters in the government, a lack of transparency in policymaking processes, ad hoc censorship policies, and failure to have a multi-stakeholder forum where input from stakeholders is taken for the laws and policies under consideration.
The near three-year YouTube ban in Pakistan epitomizes this tense relationship and the push and pull between government, civil society, the private sector, and other actors. The website was banned to appease violent protestors after a video that was deemed blasphemous appeared on YouTube in September 2012 The lifting of the ban has become an ego tussle between Google and the Pakistani government; with academia and civil society criticizing the restriction of access to the website.
Keeping in mind the disconnect between policymakers and other stakeholders such as technology companies, civil society, media, and academia, Bolo Bhi is trying to fill the gap in research by mapping all stakeholders involved and collecting perspectives on the problems in internet policymaking in Pakistan. The primary stakeholders in policymaking are government bodies, including the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoITT); the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA); the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunications; and as of late, the Ministries of Interior and Defense along with security agencies such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
This research study analyses how policymaking in the information technology sector in Pakistan has impacted and continues to impact individuals and businesses. It touches upon the way the sector is governed, and the type of policies (primarily censorship and blocking) that have, in the past and present, been implemented in response to certain issues or due to the socio-political environment at the time. It goes on to discuss the quality of access and user satisfaction and the awareness of internet regulation policies of the average user.
The current debate over the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 drafted by the Ministry and currently under consideration by the National Assembly IT Committee is another example of the controversial and complicated nature of internet policymaking. This research study also includes observations on the ongoing PECB 2015 process.
Key findings of the study include:
- Little trust in the Ministry of IT & Telecom. Entrepreneurs complain of misuse of powers and ad hoc investigations of their companies by the government.
- Legislators and politicians feel the Ministry creates policies that promote checks over people, such as censorship, but most support bans on material deemed objectionable from a religious perspective, such as blasphemy and pornography.
- Little to no talk about a five year policy like the one that lapsed in the year 2007 after the PTA Act was enacted in 2002.
- Lack of transparency in policy making, and lack of expertise and understanding in the Ministry. Consensus that stakeholders should be involved in internet policymaking.
- Surveys found internet users in Pakistan unhappy with quality of internet service and unaware of censorship policies and procedures, reflecting a lack of transparency.
Additionally, Pakistan lacks a strong multistakeholder forum that brings together the industry, civil society, and the government in a manner where various actors can collectively and conclusively discuss a future policy roadmap. The lack of clear directionality is further highlighted by the fact that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the regulatory body of the internet, has not formulated a 5 year policy since the previous cycle concluded in 2009. Stakeholders are not being brought into the discussion, and a clear long-term framework has never been proposed. Instead, the industry has been hampered by decisions made in the moment without any consultation.
The ideal model for effective policymaking and legislation would include all the relevant stakeholders in a transparent process, and would lead to legislation and policy that guides all decisions regarding the internet, rather than relying on ad hoc decisions made by the executive.