The benefits of the Internet far outweigh its faults, says Altamash Kamal.
It was during an uncharacteristically sultry summer afternoon attending a session Of a Salzburg seminar our years ago that I got my first taste of the Internet. There at the foot of the Alps, I got on ‘the Net’ and (having skipped dinner) stayed on till three in the morning. Then I called and woke my wife up in Karachi and told her: “I think I have discovered what I was born for.”
Before that day I had read a lot about the Net, but no amount of reading could have prepared me for the power of that first experience. The Internet is many things to many people. To some it is nothing less than a gift from the heavens. To others it is only a scourge, a source of pornography and politically incorrect propaganda. I belong firmly in the first category. Since that day in Salzburg, the Internet for me has been a voyage of discovery. And I think I have understood it for what it is. A new media. The new media. The mother of all media.
At its most fundamental, the Internet is about empowerment—of people who have been exploited and suppressed. Empowerment of the ones who have been ‘educated’ but left unwise and ill-informed. Empowerment of children who can be so much more than their teachers could ever imagine. Empowerment of a nation that sees only disillusionment and despair as its destiny.
The Internet is about the organic collective knowledge of humanity, its accumulation, organisation and dissemination. The greatest libraries in the world are in the process of changing their nature. From being mere repositories of information to becoming the hyper-linked, cross-referenced bodies of knowledge that researchers could have only dreamt about till now.
The Internet allows instantaneous global publication at low cost. It permits teams of workers and researchers to collaborate from across the oceans. It allows for databases to be linked to other relevant information, all of which can be searched to find exactly the bits you are interested in. It allows for news to be customised for individual users, reducing the information overload that many of us now suffer from. It allows you to spread the word to each corner of the globe about the goods or services you offer.
So, in the less than two years since coming into existence, my relatively small Karachi-based company was servicing clients in Norway and Argentina. But on the Net they were as far from me as someone on the other side of town.
As anyone who understands trends in technology will tell you, the Net is on the verge of integrating traditional electronic media, with all the advantages to education, communication, commerce and entertainment that a truly integrated global network can provide. Universities now offer degrees ‘on-line’ and many radio stations are now available on the Net where you can listen to a favourite programme at a time convenient to you. Television is not far behind.
But Pakistan is a country bound by myths and insecurities. It is frightening that not so long ago many in our state apparatus considered the email messages sent by MQM (the party that claims to represent Pakistani Muhajirs) from outside Pakistan sufficient cause to ban the Internet in the country. Not only do these people not understand the importance of the technology, they also insist on using the proverbial hair on the elephant’s tail to describe this ‘monster’ that apparently confronts us.
With an estimated 200 million-plus users around the world and growing exponentially, it is irrelevant if Pakistan does, or does not, play a part in making the Internet what it is bound to become — a global community of the information rich. We essentially missed out on the Industrial Revolution, and that was unfortunate. If we lose out on the Information Revolution, it would be nothing short of a national disaster.
As a Pakistani, I would want us to take the role that is rightfully ours and exploit it to leapfrog into the Information Age. So what can be done? Here are a few prerequisites:
Successive governments in Pakistan have regarded telecommunications as a cash cow rather than something that has now become as fundamental for the society as education and healthcare. Other countries have realised that the most effective role the government can play in order to develop the communication sector is to define and implement a progressive regulatory framework and then get out of the way to let market forces develop and nurture the sector.
Pakistan has to learn from these experiences. There are enough models available to show how to set up vibrant privatised telecom sectors, but we seem to have taken up something close to the worst of them. The fate of the Internet is directly tied to the availability of a cheap and reliable telecommunications infrastructure. So the first thing the present (military) government can do is to drastically revise the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This piece of legislation, hurriedly passed in the last days of the Benazir Bhutto government, casts into permanence the inefficient and over-priced state monopoly in this sector. It also binds and gags the usually more efficient and responsive private sector by placing unreasonable and non-competitive operational and economic restrictions on it. All this in the name of securing a good price for, if and when, the behemoth is privatised.
The regulatory framework needs to be streamlined and unnecessary restrictions done away with. They only serve to hinder development and prevent investment. The private sector should be allowed direct international connectivity independent of the state monopoly so that Internet costs in particular can be more affordable. Cheap and widespread availability of the Internet, especially in educational institutions, should be made a national priority. This should be integrated into efforts to increase exports of software and other information-based services, for which the Net is essential.
Current restrictions on the transmission of voice and video over the Internet and other data connections are not only unenforceable, they also hinder the rapid proliferation of a very useful and cost-effective means of communication. These restrictions must go. Similarly, the restriction of sending encrypted data over the Internet, which is again largely ignored by the users, has to be removed if the medium’s full communications and economic potential is to be exploited.
A lot more can be done, but these steps would be a very good start. There is a lot of trash on the Internet, just like there is in all media. Society will over time learn to cope with it and regulate it. As a nation, the basic point that we have to understand is that the benefits the Net brings far out-weigh its faults by a few million to one. As we enter the 21st century, one can only hope that the few visionaries one finds in Islamabad will eventually prevail. And the Internet, designed to survive nuclear war, will also manage to survive misguided policies that are currently preventing it from playing its destined role.