Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa (Retd), Chairman Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) talks exclusively to Safety & Security Today regarding PTA’s regulatory role.
S&ST: Tell us something about your career and professional background?
Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa: I am a Telecom Engineer with over 35 years of experience. By virtue of my military background (Corps of Signals) I remained actively involved in telecom and Information Technology (IT) services planning and provisioning for large enterprises. I also have a background and experience in cybersecurity. During my military career, I have been on senior leadership positions in telecom, IT and cybersecurity fields. My last assignment, before joining PTA, was as head of a large public sector organization involved in the provision of commercial telecom and IT services to government departments and the general public in a challenging and less developed zone.
S&ST: The exponential growth of communication technology has posed numerous challenges for regulators. Regulating this ever-expanding industry must be a huge challenge. What exactly is the mandate of PTA?
In this digitally connected era, the world is fast transforming due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution towards a cyber-physical system. Future will witness many evolution such as shared economy, lack of digital frontiers, driver-less cars, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), 5G and further development of cloud computing. This era of fast-evolving and disruptive technologies is a challenge for regulators and policy-makers to accordingly tailor policies, legal and regulatory frameworks to keep pace with the developments. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) was established with a mandate to regulate the establishment, operation and maintenance of telecommunication systems, and the provision of telecom services. Basically, PTA is the facilitator and the protector of the rights of all those who are benefiting from the telecommunications in Pakistan.
PTA is fully committed and configured to create a fair regulatory regime, to promote investment, encourage competition, protect consumer interest and ensure high-quality Information and communications technology (ICT) services. Furthermore, in view of the fact that ICTs play a crucial role in socio-economic development of the country and uplift of the common man. Our major target is to ensure the availability of quality telecom access and connectivity to the rural and far-flung areas of the country along with increasing the choice of services for consumers of telecommunication services at competitive and affordable rates.
S&ST: In terms of resources, is PTA well equipped to fulfill its mandate?
PTA is well structured and resourced with high-quality professionals. PTA is regulating a sector that is constantly evolving so we continue to equip and train our team and add to our team of professionals, which helps us target areas that require further attention. We ensure that the organization is equipped with the right resources to play its due role.
S&ST: A Senate committee was recently informed that millions of dollars of investment is required to install web management systems to monitor content. What is your take on this and what kind of systems are currently in place to monitor content (if any)? Also, are there any plans for upgrading/enhancing the capacity of PTA? With constant developments in the industry, PTA and telecom industry works in close harmony to address any regulatory and law enforcement challenges and put in place required systems mandated under the law.
With constant developments in the industry, PTA and telecom industry works in close harmony to address any regulatory and law enforcement challenges and put in place required systems mandated under the law.
S&ST: How do you see the future of the telecom industry in Pakistan? Are you satisfied with the current quality of services provided by telecom companies?
The future of the telecom industry is very promising and PTA in concert with policy-makers and Telecom operators is continuously working to provide access to contemporary services at affordable costs. With digitization emerging as a key policy parameter for the government to promote development, telecom sector is poised to play the role of a catalyst.
Provision of high-quality services is a continuous process and PTA as per its mandate regularly conducts inspections, surveys and tests to check the Quality of Service (QoS) of licensees in different parts of Pakistan including AJK and GB.
During the surveys, PTA measures the quality of voice, data/internet and SMS services provided by telecom operators through different Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) defined in respective license conditions of telecom operators. The survey results are not only published on the PTA website for the awareness of general public, but operators are also directed to take corrective measures for improvement of services.
In addition, surveys are also carried out on receipt of consumers’ complaints as well as interference complaints from telecom operators. As a result, the network is either optimized to the possible extent in the existing infrastructure, or the statistics/report, of the unserved/underserved area, is shared with Universal Service Fund (USF) for consideration and including the same in their upcoming plans and projects.
Currently, Pakistan is passing through network transition phase as operators are upgrading their existing 2G network to 3G /4G network. Once this transition phase is completed, the situation will further improve, and consumers will get better service quality.
S&ST: Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, PTA has been given the responsibility of blocking or removing of any content which is declared unlawful under relevant provisions of the law. What mechanism does the Authority follow to detect such content other than asking individuals to report it?
Government organizations responsible for the monitoring of objectionable content share their complaints with PTA. Moreover, the general public also submits complaints about the content which is objectionable or unlawful in their view. Based on the objective evaluation of complaints. PTA acts proactively as per law.
S&ST: One of the major reasons for introducing Biometric verification of mobile SIMS was to ensure that they cannot be used for criminal purposes and, if used, the person on whose name the SIM is issued can be held accountable. However, despite this biometric system, mobile SIMS are being used (rather) freely to commit fraud and extort money. What are the loopholes in the system that enable this?
The process of SIM sale, verification and activation have evolved over time by adopting the best possible means and efforts. The current process of Biometric Verification System (BVS), for instance, has been finalized by a Joint Working Group (JWG) comprising members from Ministry of Information Technology, Ministry of Interior, FIA, IB, Mobile Operators, NADRA and PTA after thorough consultation and deliberation.
The SIMS can only be activated through biometric signatures once verified by NADRA. Moreover, each SIM is paired with CNICs of legitimate owners and the sale channel is accurately traceable and identifiable, if required.
No violation of system bypass has been reported so far, however, PTA cannot be made responsible for activation of SIMS after willful affixing of finger and thumb impressions by general public in the temptation for financial incentives like BISP, prize schemes, etc.
The cases of fraud, extortion and BVS misuse are reported to FIA, which is the designated investigation agency for taking action against offences falling under Telecom Act 1996 and PECA.
Owing to ever increasing security challenges, PTA is currently consulting with stakeholders towards standardizing the BVS devices to improve the process further.
S&ST: One major example of fraud using mobile SIMS is the fake messages of BISP (naivety on part of the people who are at the wrong end of such fraud is also a factor). Despite the said fraud being going on for years, the relevant authorities are yet to find a solution to stop it. What are the reasons for this failure?
It is incorrect to say that no solution has been provided to the issue of fraud in the name of BISP. PTA is working as per its mandate and will continue to take appropriate action accordingly. PTA has taken number of steps to take punitive action against fraudsters as per provisions of regulations. However, the menace cannot be eradicated until and unless criminal proceedings against the fraudsters are initiated by the relevant Agency under PECA, 2016 and brought to a logical conclusion.
PTA has directed all CMOs to regularly broadcast SMSs for public awareness on BISP related fraud in different formats and languages (Urdu, Roman Urdu & English). PTA has also published advertisements in regional and national newspapers on reporting such fraudulent communication for public awareness. PTA has forwarded 872 consumer complaints to CMOs against BISP related fraud during the year 2018 for taking action as per PTA regulations/directives.
S&ST: Recently there has been a surge in legal requests for content removal from Pakistani authorities to Twitter. Is PTA the only authority with the legal mandate under PECA to make official requests?
Yes, official requests for content removal are generated from PTA.
S&ST: Section 37 of the PECA, 2016 states that “the Authority (PTA) shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission or incitement to an offence”. How exactly is it determined that any content is “indecent” or “against morality?
Indecency and immorality have broader meanings. It varies from person to person. However, what is considered as immoral or indecent as per universally accepted norms and keeping in view our cultural sensitivities qualifies to be reported to the content provider for blocking.
S&ST: In your view how comprehensive is the PECA, 2016 and how can it be further improved. Also, are there any issues regarding its implementation as other organizations like the FIA also have considerable mandate to tackle cybercrime?
There is no one size fit all solution for cybercrime, I think PECA is a good start and provides a legal framework for addressing challenges related to Electronic Crimes and mandates different stakeholders. The implementation is closely coordinated with stakeholders and problems or issues are resolved.
S&ST: Has the PTA framed any rules under PECA on how to scrutinize online content? Can you elaborate on the nature of these rules?
Rules under PECA are being finalized by the Cabinet Division. They will cover the procedure of reporting and blocking adequately.
S&ST: The issue of fake social media accounts is also rampant in our country. How many requests of this nature does the PTA receive on average and what action is taken against such profiles? Is there any mechanism to liaise with social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down such profiles and how lengthy is the process to do so?
Making a profile with fake name/account is not allowed by Social Media (SM) Platforms under their Community Standards. Whenever any user complaints to SM with his/her identity and desires to block the alleged account in his/her name, which may be maligning one’s stature, the complaint is taken seriously. It is pertinent to mention that users of social media are given higher value as compared to any government organization.
S&ST: Late last year the PTA announced that the long-anticipated Device Identification, Registration and Blocking System (DIRBS) would become functional (the deadline was later extended). The system aimed to combat the use of smuggled or counterfeit sets, how exactly does this system work and what will be the repercussions for people who are already using such sets?
The presence of counterfeit mobile phones in the market is an issue for telecom regulators around the world, and Pakistan is no exception. A substantial number of counterfeit mobile phones are active on our mobile networks with fake IMEI numbers. They are illegal copies of popular brands and models of mobile phones and do not carry a valid and unique IMEI (i.e. no IMEI, all zero IMEI or same IMEI). Counterfeit mobile phones congest mobile networks thereby affecting the quality of service to consumers. They can pose health risks to the users as they have not been tested against safety standards and may emit higher level of radiation than recommended.
The theft of mobile phones has become an increasingly serious problem globally and Pakistan is also facing this challenge. The theft of mobile phones is not just a financial loss but a threat to the personal lives of the citizens. It is also a national security issue as stolen mobile phones are prone to misuse.
To curtail the counterfeit mobile phone market, discourage mobile phone theft and protect consumer interest and in line with Telecom Policy 2015, PTA has established a Device Identification Registration & Blocking System (DIRBS) at PTA premises and will help combat these challenges. DIRBS is a forward-thinking solution designed in line with local challenges and issues.
All mobile Devices which are already activated on cellular Mobile Networks within Pakistan as of 15th January 2019 will remain operational without services disruption. Even non-compliant devices in operation before this date have been tied to those numbers and will remain operational untill the useful life of the device. The Mobile Devices which are not activated by 15th January, 2019 have been provided an option for registration through an online portal which is connected with FBR Weboc. In line with FBR issued CGO C.No.2(16)L&P/2018, all non-registered users can register their devices subject to fulfillment of codal formalities i.e. IMEI is unique, not reported stolen and applicable duties notified by Custom are paid etc.
S&ST: Hate speech (against religious minorities in particular) is a serious issue in the cybersphere, what is your take on the issue and how is the PTA tackling it?
Under section 11 of PECA, hate speech is amply covered. Interfaith, sectarian or racial hatred is defined. FIA is the designated agency under PECA. Whenever it is reported to PTA for blocking of any content, it is done as per prevailing standing operating procedures (SOP).
S&ST: Recently the PTA has set up a Cyber Vigilance Division (CVD) to deal with the complaints against unlawful content circulating online in Pakistan. What exactly is the mandate of this division and how will it help PTA regulate content?
CVD is raised to implement the empowerment relating to the blocking/removal of Internet content bestowed on PTA under section 37 of PECA.
SS&T: In your view what are some of the major challenges that PTA will face in the near future. Also, shed light on some of the key challenges that the telecom industry will have to deal with in the coming years?
From the standpoint of PTA, we need to continuously evolve as technology is changing rapidly. We also have to focus on the capacity building of our human resources. PTA is an organization that has delivered results and it is the only regulator in South Asia that has been declared as a fourth-generation regulator. We have to build on this and we are working towards achieving the status of a fifth-generation regulator. Moreover, our regulation has to be very responsive and we have to watch the interest of the public, telecom sector and the government. To ensure this we have to introduce more efficiency in our working. So, capacity building, responsiveness and adaptation to the changing needs are some of the areas we need to focus on keeping the future in mind.
As far as our telecom sector is concerned it is a vibrant sector and has a lot of scope to contribute towards the national economy. With the digitization framework that the government has provided this sector has a major role to play. Be it e-commerce, health, agriculture or financial technologies the telecom sector is focused on these. From a regulatory perspective, we are determined to remove any lacking in the framework or voids in regulation, so this sector continues to provide quality services to the customers in addition to providing a boost to our economy. My aim is to ensure that we compete with the rest of the world in terms of quality of our ICT services and improve our international ranking.
*The interview of Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa (Retd) was published in the April-June Issue of Safety & Security Today.