This domain name is not controlled by the Pakistan government.

The maulanas are getting wise to it, the militants are catching on, the porn-freaks love it, the movers and shakers like it and loathe it: the Internet in the Land of the Pure, while still in its diapers, is thriving on a mini boom.

A boom that holds all the promise to turn into a major one, almighty government willing. With the state holding a monopoly over the Web business, private operators here are chomping at the cyber-bit. In fact, they´re quite furious about the free surf that the state-run giant PTCL (Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation Limited) enjoys.

"These people can´t tell the Internet from a fishing net," fumes an operator. While that, of course, is stretching it a bit too far, the reaction stems from the fact that private operators are cut up about the exorbitant sums they have to cough up to the PTCL, which has its own service provider named Paknet. "PTCL does not have to pay the taxes we do," says Faisal Ahmed, managing director of Fascom, the only data network operator in the country providing Internet service. ´In addition to everything else, such as 300,000 rupees a year for the licence to operate a service, we have to pay a four percent tax on turnover which means almost half our profits are gone."

Then there´s the fear of PTCL suddenly reducing tariffs. Says Hasan Khan, marketing manager for CyberNet – one of the latest, flashiest and fastest-expanding Internet service providers: "We know very well that PTCL could knock us all out in one go by just slashing its tariffs for a little while… Even now we exist basically because of the superior quality of our service – in spite of the fact that our rates are twice as much as those of Paknet (the official service, part of PTCL)."

Myopically far-sighted

The telecom czars draw flak on other grounds as well. Official licences granted to private Internet service providers still forbid the transmission of certain types of information, all kinds of data encryption and voice relay over the Internet, oblivious of the fact that there is no way to enforce such regulations. "The licence seems like it´s out of the Government of British India Act of 1886," quips Shahab Khokhar, deputy general manager at Digicom, the first Pakistani company to offer online email and Internet facilities. Amazingly, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Act of 1996, you would be on the wrong side of the law if you tried attaching devices like a modem on telephone lines.

However, in its haste to play the poking policeman, officialdom has missed out on some matters in its own backyard. Believe it or not, the <.pk> domain name used to define Pakistani sites is not controlled by the Pakistani government but by an individual in the United States, Ashar Nisar, with whom all those who want the tag must register. The Pakistan government, it is reckoned, was caught napping while Nisar picked up the domain name.

The government also goofed up on an opportunity to develop a full Internet node using a gigantic submarine fibre-optic cable which will connect most of the rest of advanced Asia in 1999. Desperate last-minute attempts at salvaging the situation saw Pakistan obtain only an offshoot connection from the cable. As in so many other cases, senior PTCL officials were quick with their defence, explaining the lost chance as part of a "far-sighted policy".

This is perhaps the same policy that´s goading the PTCL to cling on to its monopoly. Telecom authorities remind us that since PTCL made the initial investment, it is quite justified in holding on to the monopoly as the private Internet service providers are only riding piggyback on its success. As Mian Javed, chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), puts it: "Large investment in telecom system infrastructure in the country was made by PTCL, and the returns from this investment can´t just be ignored when we make that infrastructure available to private value-added services." The regulatory body´s chairman also dismisses the notion that PTCL does not have to pay taxes. "We pay excise and other taxes even on the lines in PTCL headquarters."

Spreading Net

All the official bunglings have made things slower, but have not put a stop to the march of technology; the Net is spreading. There are now at least 25,000 Internet account holders in Pakistan. With a family often availing of one personal account, the figure of actual online users could be well above the 100,000 mark. Over the last one year, more than half a dozen private ISPs have entered the market, while companies and individuals are scampering to get connected. This is what the mini boom is all about.

Thousands of Pakistanis now have their own multimedia pages on the World Wide Web, the fastest-growing part of the Net. Political parties and militant groups, media organisations, students, the smut crowd, and even some maulanas like Israr Ahmed have their own homepages. Net riders can now access their favourite newspapers; browse through party manifestos, stock exchange listings; send an email to Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif; download verbatim the Pakistani Constitution; place advertisements; make hotel reservations; shop for books; or even savour the audio of the pop group Junoon´s latest numbers and Nusrat Fateh Ali´s qawwalis.

There has been some creativity too. Like the venture of Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP) – a non-profit organisation funded among others by UNDP -which was among the first to offer electronic mail access to individuals and corporations. The SDNP, by not providing direct online Internet access keeps the costs down even as it reaches out to a wide community who can´t afford such ´connectivity´. The programme´s resource managers keep their clients constantly updated on development-related information by accessing sources and feeding them off the Net.

Some of this promises a happy ending for the Internet story in Pakistan, almost raising visions of cyber-happy women in purdah carrying online feminist debates with their counterparts, which the Net certainly would support. But no. We´re still talking South Asia. Pakistan carries with it all the baggages of patented South Asian virtues – a paranoid bureaucracy, profusion of low-techies, poor and thin telecom links, and that small matter of illiteracy and poverty. Here, even the Net has to wait to conquer. And yes, here many may well take it for the fishing net for some time to come.

This text is based on interviews and reporting in the Herald magazine's special Internet issue of June 1997.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian