Dawn Editorial 16 October 2020

Digital surveillance

THE stage is steadily being set for increased internet surveillance in the country. The government has a clear target for which it is silently laying the groundwork, but the preparations are all taking place without the input of key stakeholders from the tech industry.
A report published in this paper yesterday revealed that this lack of transparency has set off alarm bells for the big technology companies who will be the direct targets of this regulation and surveillance. Represented by the Asia Internet Coalition, major social media platforms including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple have published a letter written to Prime Minister Imran Khan expressing deep concern about the lack of consultation in drafting the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020 — a key legal framework that will give the government the power to monitor and restrict digital content as well as punish social media companies that don’t comply with government requests.
The letter goes so far as to say that the companies have lost trust in the “non-transparent and abbreviated” consultation process. While this has been said publicly, in private and on condition of anonymity, top executives at these tech companies are said to have revealed even more startling developments which indicate that there is far more at stake than is made public. One executive said the government wants these companies to shift their user data servers into Pakistani territory, with on-demand access to any and all data.
It was also revealed that the government wants to further restrict and control what is published on social media, with a demand to block and regulate content. The rules, under which these sweeping powers would be legalised, have so far been kept secret, with the coalition even stating that, despite multiple requests, no draft of the revised rules has been shared with industry stakeholders for input or feedback.
That the government is diligently laying the foundation for the large-scale digital surveillance of citizens is deeply unsettling. What is more disturbing is the secrecy with which all of this is being done, with even the tech companies complaining that they have been left in the dark. The clandestine nature of these rules and the key demands of the government to these tech companies suggest that something sinister is at play. That the authorities want citizen data to be stored in Pakistan so that they can access it without going through a legal process speaks volumes for the state’s desperation to monitor citizens’ movements online.
Such a hawkish approach to digital companies makes a mockery of both the prime minister’s dream of a ‘digital Pakistan’ and his claim of “I am democracy”. The dogged tracking of citizens, the eagerness to access their data and the desire to proactively block certain kinds of content reeks of paranoia and is shameful behaviour in a democracy.



Extending G20 relief

THE decision of G20, a group of the world’s 19 richest nations and the European Union, to extend its debt relief initiative for heavily indebted countries for another six months to end-June next year is a good move. It will support the depressed economies to fight off the adverse impact of Covid-19 on their people, finances and healthcare systems. The relief has helped countries like Pakistan divert savings from the initiative for social protection and to take measures to tackle the fallout of the global illness on small businesses and livelihoods as their economy contracts. Additionally, the initiative has somewhat lifted pressure on the external sector of the economies by strengthening their meagre foreign currency reserves and reducing their servicing requirements amid shrinking trade and investment inflows. Announced in May this year, the Debt Service Suspension Initiative was to originally last till December 2020. According to the World Bank, Pakistan is estimated to have saved $2.7bn owing to the suspension of its debt-servicing payments. The estimates of the size of the potential savings that Islamabad will accrue because of the rescheduling of its bilateral loans following the extension in the initiative are not immediately available. But the relief is expected to be significant. There is a good chance that G20 may further extend the initiative for another six months should the group feel the need for it.
There is no doubt that the G20 action is assisting many struggling economies not only in their fight against the pandemic but also in their recovery from the latter’s harmful effects on the poorer segments of their populations and small businesses. Yet the relief amounts to a short-term postponement of the bilateral debt of the participating nations at the end of the day. Most of the economies considered eligible for relief, especially ones like Pakistan requiring more bilateral and multilateral loans for paying off their old, outstanding debt, are unlikely to recover fast enough to be able to start servicing their foreign liabilities without burdening their people and businesses. It is time that G20 and multilateral lenders like the World Bank and IMF started working on ways to help these countries through cancellation of their existing debt to create space for a quicker economic turnaround. It may not be possible for bilateral and multilateral lenders to write off the entire debt. Even a partial cancellation will help. Alternatively, the debt payments of vulnerable economies may be suspended for a longer period of, say, 10 years.



Misbah’s dilemma

HE came, he saw, he relinquished. That is the sum total of former cricket skipper Misbah-ul-Haq’s 13-month stint as head coach-chief selector-batting coach. Now he is only head coach. On Wednesday, Misbah announced he was quitting his job as chief selector because he couldn’t give ample time to his other duties assigned by the PCB. It was in September last year that the PCB, in an unprecedented move, decided to appoint Misbah as the national team’s head coach and chief selector, a decision that was destined to backfire. The critics were up in arms on two counts. Firstly, they correctly pointed out that Misbah, despite being a fine cricketer and the most successful captain in the country’s cricketing history, had no experience whatsoever of coaching or selecting a team. Secondly, they insisted, it would not be physically possible for Misbah to discharge his two duties with diligence and that he would not have the time or focus to do justice to both. But rather than heeding these observations from experts including former players, the PCB went on to announce that Misbah would also handle the role of batting coach.
Predictably enough, it has been a downhill road for the ex-skipper. Pakistan lost major series against Australia and England. In all three formats — Tests, ODIs and T20s — its rankings have taken a beating, which has justifiably earned the ire of fans. The appointment of ex-batsman Younis Khan as batting coach on the last England tour in July-August was a sign that the pressure of wearing three hats at once had started to tell on Misbah. Now he has excused himself from the chief selector’s role as well.The new dispensation in the PCB wants to show it means business. But all it has done so far is to take hasty decisions, only to reverse them or see them backfire. The PCB must learn from the failed Misbah experiment and appoint a seasoned person as chief selector to ensure Pakistan is represented by the very best.


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