The rise of big tech has called upon governments to answer difficult questions: mainly, to what extent does the internet require regulation? What is the line between freedom of speech and cybercrimes? This is a discussion being deliberated across the world, and governments all over are having to strike a delicate balance between governance and freedoms regarding the internet.

It is doubtful that this line is being maintained in Pakistan, however, with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)’s recent policy. PTA made it mandatory for customers to register Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) with telecom authorities. This means that users will be unable to browse the web using encryption software without registration after June 30.

PTA has justified the requirement by stating that it is partly to promote legal ICT services/business in Pakistan and the safety of telecom users. Those using VoIP and VPNs for terminating illegal traffic caused loss to the exchequer by avoiding applicable taxes. While this explanation does make sense, it is important that PTA also weigh the heavy costs that come with this move. There are very legitimate reasons for the use of VPNs, which include ensuring privacy and anonymity on local servers; many businesses use it to protect sensitive information, including account numbers and passwords. This requirement would be a further hassle to the ease of doing business.

Not only this, but the mandatory registration is a step towards curtailing privacy in an environment which is already dangerously close to surveillance. The debate on data privacy in Pakistan has yet to begin properly. Security should not only be the angle that the government should approach the Internet with. The use of VPNs for protection against insecure networks and as a means to protect your own data and fool advertisers cannot be overstated. Registering VPNs and adding a whole new means of regulations and red tape is tantamount to banning them almost.

The government needs to decide who it is governing the Internet for. Is it only a means to monitor citizens online and allow for businesses to use the web as a large marketplace that also allows for advertising – or is cyberspace a realm where netizens can choose to exercise their rights and liberties freely, and be safe in the knowledge that the state will protect their interests at all costs?