Silencing the digital world: what’s the damage done?
KARACHI: Legendary billionaire investors once famously said that it takes 20 years to build a reputation but only five minutes to ruin it.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s brand image as the fourth fastest-growing freelance market and an attractive investment destination in the booming digital economy has been tarnished within a few days due to the government’s decision to suspend internet services nationwide. This politically motivated action has significant financial and economic implications, especially regarding the crucial and immediate requirement to generate valuable foreign exchange.
According to estimates from the IT and software house trade representative of Pakistan IT industry association (P@SHA), the recent internet shutdown has resulted in a daily loss of approximately $3-4 million for the IT industry.
Telecom companies operating in Pakistan, where broadband services contribute 60% of total revenue, have incurred losses of Rs2.46 billion.
Moreover, the shutdown has severely impacted the daily livelihood of thousands of users who rely on the digital ecosystem for services like delivery and ride-hailing.
As per netblocks.org, the website that monitors internet freedom in real time, internet services are finally crawling back to normalcy amid huge global outcry but the damage has been done.
In addition to damaging the already fragile reputation of the country concerning human rights violations and freedom of expression, global investors are now questioning whether Pakistan is truly a reliable investment opportunity.
Julian Gorman, Head of Asia-Pacific GSMA, a non-profit association of GSM operators worldwide, expressed serious concerns in a recent letter to the Ministry of IT and Telecom. Gorman highlighted the detrimental impact of the current restrictions on Pakistani citizens and businesses.
He warned that these restrictions not only harm businesses and society at large but can also negatively affect credit and investment plans, ultimately tarnishing the country’s reputation for economic management and foreign investment.
The incident also highlights a lack of crucial oversight in the decision-making process by various authorities, such as the blocking of internet services or the recent government decision in February to restrict access to Wikipedia, as well as occasional media channel bans.
According to standard business practices, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which falls under the Cabinet Division, should not solely act on the directive of the Ministry of Interior. Instead, it should assert its authority as an independent regulator, separate from any specific government administration.
Similar concerns arise regarding the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), whose decisions to block certain media outlets have faced criticism both domestically and internationally.
There are various alternative solutions to the internet blockades in Pakistan that can effectively address online harms while minimising negative impacts on the economy, society, and human rights.
These solutions necessitate a collaborative approach involving the government, civil society organisations, internet service providers, and other stakeholders to ensure their effectiveness, proportionality, and non-disruption of essential services.
One possible approach is the implementation of “selective” or “app-specific” blocking and white-listing of users, rather than completely shutting down the entire internet. This would ensure the availability of critical applications, IT export-related organisations, and essential services.
As mentioned in my previous article titled “Black Wednesday for the Pakistani rupee,” tapping into the multi-billion dollar business process outsourcing (BPO) market presents an ideal solution to generate much-needed foreign exchange for the country while offering employment opportunities to educated and tech-savvy youth entering the job market.
However, incidents like these can quickly deter international clients from considering Pakistan as a dependable partner for such services. In a highly competitive global landscape, we risk losing to our competitors, just as we have in the past with other sectors such as textiles.
Source: The Express Tribune