September 3, 2013

Imran Anwar: Tech Evangelist

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TechnologyAdvice recently had the opportunity to talk to Imran Anwar about his experiences as a tech entrepreneur in both Pakistan and the US. In a wide ranging phone interview, Anwar was more than willing to discuss both his past experiences, his hopes for technology in general, and even his feelings about the NSA’s data collection programs. Perhaps his candid demeanor stems from his time spent studying Journalism at Columbia University in New York. It is immediately clear when talking to Anwar that he is both extremely interested in current affairs, and passionate about the role that technology can play in them. More than anything, you get the sense that he wants to spread his passion for technology to others. Given his background, however, this is hardly surprising.

Imran attended the University of Engineering & Technology in Lahore, Pakistan after graduating from Aitchison College in 1978. At the time Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was the country’s President and had declared martial law over the country only a year earlier in 1977. Anwar referred to Zia as a “dictator” during our conversation and described how the government had felt threatened by the technological advances beginning to take place.

In 1989 Anwar attended Columbia’s Graduate School of Business on a scholarship, and during this time studied at the Columbia Journalism School as well. Despite his previous experiences in Pakistan, he decided to return after graduating with an MBA in order to start the first Pakistani internet service provider, a joint venture with his close friend Ashar Nisar. It wasn’t long before Anwar and Pakistani government’s paths again crossed. He described a visit he received from government officials soon after starting IMRAN.PK who tried to stop his company with an obscure law from the 1800s designed to regulate telegraphs that were sent without government approval. For a regime attempting to control their country’s communications, the sudden introduction of email into the country was cause for immediate concern.

Despite these official visits, Imran continued ahead with his internet ventures. Now, as he noted, Pakistani’s have access to even cheaper internet services than many Americans. Although he eventually got out of the ISP business to explore finance and avoid an increasingly hostile government, his experiences as an early tech entrepreneur in Pakistan seem to have left a lasting impact on his worldview and his ideas of what technology should be. “Tech is cool,” he said, “but tech that serves to make the world better is cooler. Tech is at its finest when used for making social and societal change.” Talking about IMRAN.PK, Anwar talked about the potential for technology to provide access to free information, and eventually to “break down walls of hate” built by repressive policies and misinformation.

Coming from this background, Anwar’s perspective and concerns about the NSA’s Prism data monitoring program seem to carry a special conviction. Referring to the US governments admittance that it actively monitors and stores citizens internet and wireless communications, Anwar said it makes him “absolutely ashamed as an American.” While reiterating that he is fully in support of robust national security measures, he stressed the importance of making agencies such as the NSA attain warrants for their activity. Such broad monitoring, Anwar says, assumes that every American is “guilty until proven innocent.”

Aside from a personal disease with government surveillance programs however, Anwar also worries about the potentially broad implications for American businesses and the world’s internet development itself.

“Europe will rely less on American technology in general because our servers have all been compromised,” he said, referring to private companies inability to opt out of government data collection programs. “Cloud based companies will be hit even harder” he said. Foreign leaders may use the recent revelations as a political tool, breaking themselves off from US internet infrastructure, and attempting to build their own internet clouds. Anwar, having witnessed political corruption first hand, worries that such attempts will simply serve to reward the friends of political elites in these countries, wasting valuable resources and technologically isolating the country’s citizens.He summed up the potential consequences saying “the larger the cloud the more benefits you get. There’s a reason there’s only one Facebook, if there were 10, it wouldn’t be useful.”

Still, Anwar seems almost irrepressibly optimistic about the potential of technology. He expressed excitement about the current developments happening in the mobile arena, marvelling at the camera inside his new Nokia Lumia smartphone (in the interest of full disclosure, however, he is currently serving as a consultant for Microsoft). He also sees great potential in the future of wearable technology. Although he admitted not signing up for the Google Glass beta, saying the device “is a little too big, a little too geeky to wear,” he expressed certainty that “a whole lot of innovation is coming soon” to the field.

At the end of our discussion he emphasized a belief of his that seemed to sum up his worldview. “If a smart entrepreneur can imagine a device” he said, “they should try to do it. This is a great time to be alive as an inventor.” Even if Anwar has serious concerns about the current political climate or about the outlook for US internet services, he seems certain that entrepreneurs and technology can always find a way forward. Looking at his life story so far, it’s hard to disagree.