Pakistan’s Headless Cyberspace Leadership

Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed Tania Aidrus as Adviser to the PM on Digital Pakistan after much fanfare. Aidrus, who possesses vast experience in IT-related management and administration, held positions in renowned firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton, First Consulting Group and Google, to name a few. There is another experienced technocrat Shabahat Ali Shah leading the National Information Technology Board (NITB) as part of a drive toward e-governance and digitisation. Both these talented MIT alumni aim for the same objectives, yet are working in silos.

For the ordinary citizen, it would appear that the vision to fulfil PTI’s ‘Digital Pakistan’ programme has taken off. But for those who understand the complex workings of cyberspace as a domain, the federal government seems okay with overlapping mandates and treating digitisation like an agenda exclusive of the broader requirement for a national cyberspace strategy. Indeed, there remains a greater emphasis on ‘digital’ or ‘social’ media instead of cyber defence or cyber security.

Ideally, a visionary political leadership would encourage restructuring of existing institutions or setup new ones (if need be), define functional boundaries, remove overlaps and recruit subject-matter experts on a war footing.

The fundamental flaw in keeping ‘digital media’ distinct from ‘cyberspace’ is that the national-level conceptual understanding of cyber as a domain of operations is not accorded the seriousness it deserves; generally, political parties have been known to concern themselves more with their online image. As a consequence, aspects of cyber-related education, legislation and security remain elusive. These are, of course, the state’s critical interests and yield benefits into the long-term, not within a specified term in office. As of yet, there appears no intent on the part of the federal government to appoint a focal person and/or authority to handle aspects of cyberspace.

A recent example of this ad-hoc policy planning by the PTI was the rushed passage of Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules promulgated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The PTA, for its part, is mainly concerned with telecom issues and does not have a defined mandate on cyberspace except a Web Analysis Division which handles issues pertaining to content blockage etc. It does not have the technical or legal expertise to manage issues pertaining to cyberspace. The Ministry of IT & Telecom can rename and restructure the PTA to “PTCA” (Pakistan Telecommunication and Cyberspace Authority) or establish a separate PCA (Pakistan Cyberspace Authority) exclusively for handling cyber-related issues.

Pakistan direly needs an experienced practitioner and ‘thinker’ who could advise the PM on how to legally, technically and socially manage complex engagements with various governmental and external stakeholders on cyber-related issues.

Ideally, a visionary political leadership would encourage restructuring of existing institutions or setup new ones (if need be), define functional boundaries, remove overlaps and recruit subject-matter experts on a war footing. However, the government is still struggling to pacify generalist bureaucrats of various cadres who are simply unfit to establish and run specialist departments dealing with cyberspace.

Pakistan direly needs an experienced practitioner and ‘thinker’ who could advise the PM on how to legally, technically and socially manage complex engagements with various governmental and external stakeholders on cyber-related issues. Orienting the state apparatus toward a common, unifying long-term direction laid out by the political leadership is most imperative.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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