Cautionary Tale for Pakistan’s Tech Industry

These are exciting, heady times to be involved in Technology and Entrepreneurship in Pakistan. With many province-backed Technology boards kicking ‘start-up’ incubators and accelerators into high gear (namely Punjab and KPK), while both private and public universities are scrambling to join bandwagon to nurture the next Instagram or Uber, many young Pakistanis are being led to believe that all you require is a dream team consisting of a visionary, a content guru, a multi-tasking programmer/coder and the Fairy Godmother -equivalent of an angel investor to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.* 

After reading this article from Foreign Policy earlier today, I feel that there is much that Pakistan’s fledgling technology industry can learn from Russia’s mistakes.

It seems that our neighbors to the North-East have already been down this road of pre-mature zeal and it would serve us well to identify the red flags.

The political will and, more importantly, the financial capacity to encourage technological innovation are gone. Gone too is Medvedev himself, these days practically invisible outside Russia and eclipsed inside it, with President Vladimir Putin firmly back in the driver’s seat. Skolkovo was raided by anti-corruption agents in April 2013, after which several figureheads on the project were accused of misappropriation of funds. Although officials deny that the investigations were politically motivated, Skolkovo has tumbled down the government’s priority list: This year, the incubator was ordered to cut costs by 20 to 40 percent.

With the controversial Cyber Crime Bill 2015 threatening civil liberties on the web, Pakistanis should take a pro-active approach to securing digital rights by campaigning for their say in the content of the vaguely worded legislation.

Read below, this scenario is unfortunately quite familiar:

Putin’s slow squeeze on Internet freedoms since his return to the presidency puts him further at odds with the IT and web services industry. Legislation passed in 2014 that calls for all Russian Internet user data to be housed on servers on the territory of the Russian Federation paves the way, some argue, for the Kremlin’s control of the “Runet,” as the Russian-language Internet is commonly called. Bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors need to register with the country’s media regulator. Meanwhile, major online platforms, including software development network GitHub and video-hosting site Vimeo, have been blocked in Russia — in some cases for seemingly arbitrary reasons, for hosting what the government says is extremist or terrorist material. That security services are playing a larger role in deciding how the Internet functions in Russia isn’t exactly inviting for businesses.

The cautious optimism with which us Pakistanis are eyeing activity in the high-tech industry has been labeled as habitual pessimism, but I strongly disagree.  If we want Pakistan’s nascent tech scene to become a solid foundation upon which societal development  and regional peace can be based, then it is vital  we ensure that the technology industry’s growth is sustainable.  I suggest we, as citizens, be more active in technology scene, participate in the  events and the online discussions.  We can demand more transparency when foreign investors seek to support one start-up over another. If we do not understand the significance behind the promotion of a certain tech-based solution, when a non-technological solution already exists and it will just be a waste of taxpayer’s rupees, we should speak up!  Ask for the spreadsheets, the reasoning.  If we are satisfied with the answers, wonderful!  If we are not convinced, then keep asking questions.  Talk to your representatives in the provincial and federal governments.  Use social media to find clarity, be it Twitter or Facebook.  I implore you, do not let the glamour of gadgets and the sweet chatter of jargon seduce you! Pakistan’s future is at stake and a few hash-tagged buzzwords should not be enough to justify spending.

We can leverage technology to empower our young men and women to choose careers that are fulfilling, to educate the multitudes who live miles away from educational institutions, and to heal those without easy access to medical personnel.   The potential for gain via technological means is immense in Pakistan.  It’s a gamble we are willing to take – I hope we can convert this gamble into a solid investment. 

*insert Silicon Valley Founder-slash- CEO of your choice