The National Access Point: The Dilemma of Vision

by Zubair Fasial Abbasi

While rest of the world including our neighbor is preparing to cultivate the benefits of Information Technology revolution, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited [] is nestling into one of the most regressive and myopic policies of control. In the news item published in the DAWN dated 13 July, 2000 with heading "PTCL Move To Block Internet Telephony item, PTCL claims to setting up a so-called NAP "National Access Point" under the garb of monitoring, analyzing internet traffic to block access to pornographic sites and for effective use of the Internet bandwidth including scrapping the Internet telephony option for the Internet users.

The ulterior motives of the 'factors' behind such a move may crop up with a simple click of common sensical thought. PTCL calls it "National Access Point" while, technically speaking, such arrangements are called "Network Access Point. This nomenclature hints towards something that rests between the lines. The difference between the two versions of NAP is not merely technical; it is a political question of vision and points towards what is lying in store for our society.

The fact is that such a monitoring and control over the flow of electronic data and information necessarily and potentially encroaches upon the fundamental human rights like "right to information and expression". It creates opportunities for a "politically motivated sniffing" into emails and other Internet packets. The most vulnerable to hi-tech vindication, along with other cross sections of civil society, are journalists, human right groups and "dissidents". It seems that the vested interests perhaps want to make use of this technology for blocking access to "undesirable" and "rogue" systems of message transmission under the politics of "national interest". Virtually leaving information consumers and the so-called citizens of Pakistan with "404 Error URL Not Found" sort of Internet packets. The whole episode of NAP is happening in Pakistan when comparatively totalitarian regimes like United Arab Emirates (UAE) are removing regulatory restrictions and allowing people to use direct satellite uplinks while completely bypassing the main Etisalat infrastructure. One may say about PTCL, woe to the administrative set ups which move backwards while society moves ahead!

As a matter of fact, it is practically impossible to effectively block "morally corrupt" and "politically (in)correct" sites from accessibility. Our national interests/visions are so wide and fluid that IP (Internet Protocol) and word-based controls are insufficient in catching up our whims. For instance, if PTCL chooses to block sites carrying word 'breast' it would necessarily block many of the medical related sites as well and if it starts controlling through IP (Internet Protocol) it is simply impossible to do it effectively with accuracy of results and 100% blocking. People may choose re-director sites like 'anonymous dot com' and other services for reaching them. It seems that the "morality" propaganda of PTCL is frivolous and nave in the potentially anarchic world of cyberspace.

On the technical front the proposal for establishing NAP is not without caveat. Reducing multiple pathways of networks to two gateways i.e., one in Karachi and the other in Islamabad, would provide easy targets for "info-terrorists" to ransack the whole apparatus of Internet connectivity in Pakistan. This is only a manifestation of sheer myopia fast engulfing the profit hungry monopolistic PTCL. How would PTCL be able to keep smooth sailing of NAP with the required level of technical expertise? The answer lies in the PTCL's questionable performance and expertise in managing and troubleshooting the half circuit bandwidth provided to Internet Service Providers. What should be done is to establish Network Access Point for interconnectivity between ISPs in Pakistan to avoid Internet traffic taking international route. This would result in reducing unnecessary consumption of international bandwidth resources. However, this should be done in collaboration with ISPs both at the policy and implementation levels while respecting ISPs democratic right either to choose NAP or avoid it for routing the Internet packets.

On the revenue side, it seems that the PTCL's claim of revenue loss due to the Internet telephony should be taken with a pinch of salt. They present a net revenue loss figure of $ US 2.8 million per annum due to Internet telephony but, as a matter of fact, there is no credible mechanism to tabulate and claim with exactitude that the said loss is exclusively due to the Internet telephony. While PTCL is raising line rent and using other measures to mop up money from its telephone subscribers which would substantially increase its profits, it is not prepared to draw its hands away from grossly exaggerated $ US 2.8 millions per annum. It must be kept in mind that this amount is less than a fifth of a per cent of PTCL's total revenue. Is this the superhighway that promises to lead Pakistan to the vista of revolutions in Information and Communication Technologies?

It goes without saying, the NAP policy of PTCL will be harmful, if implemented ubiquitously for all ISPs making it mandatory for them to use the NAP. This will obviously discourage new investors in the IT field for providing satellite-based up-links for Internet Service Providers in Pakistan. The benefits of faster and reliable data transmission from direct up-linking will be lost in congested and blocked pipes of two NAP gateways. Result: the not-so-distant-Revolution Betrayed!

In the present scenario and with "National Access Point" what PTCL can and help do is to "sniff" the chunk of Internet packets and play with privacy of users, and some "interests" may use the logs generated through proxy servers (acting as black box) for ulterior political purposes. Who knows whether PTCL and "others" will restrict themselves doing only the things that they claim doing? NAP is a dilemma of vision, in the final analysis.

The author works with SDNP Pakistan.