For the first time in its history, the government yesterday temporarily shut down the internet in Bangladesh, affecting businesses and services heavily dependent on the digital network.
The government said the internet was shut down “mistakenly”.
The shutdown, which lasted for over 75 minutes, from 1:00pm to around 2:15pm, came shortly after the authorities blocked Facebook and online messaging and calling services WhatsApp and Viber.
Experts and entrepreneurs in the digital sphere said the shutdown had massively affected digital business, and its effect would be long-term.
Mustafa Jabbar, former president of Bangladesh Computer Samity, said the internet had become the “lifeline of modern life, businesses and offices”.
“Blocking social networking sites and applications is a complete failure of the government mechanism.”
Tarana Halim, state minister for telecommunication, and Shahjahan Mahmood, chairman of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, said the shutdown was a result of a misunderstanding.
“We restored the internet as soon as we realised the mistake,” Mahmood said.
The shutdown was just an hour after the Supreme Court delivered verdicts upholding the death penalties of war criminals Salauddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed.
Earlier, the BTRC asked all mobile carriers, internet gateways and service providers to block Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber immediately.
Speaking on the issue, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said the government had blocked Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp for the sake of security, following the deliveries of the verdicts.
“The country's security is more important than free chat,” said BTRC Chairman Mahmood, adding that they would decide soon on restoring the services.
Mahmood said this was not the first time the government had blocked Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber. It had happened in the past, and might happen again in future.
A senior official of the BTRC, requesting anonymity, said Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber could remain blocked for three days and on the fourth day, they would remove the block on trial basis.
On January 18 this year, the regulator had blocked Viber, WhatsApp, Tango, Mypeople and Line for four days.
The government also blocked Facebook during the BDR mutiny in 2009 and video-sharing website YouTube for 260 days between September 2012 and June 2013.
On November 11, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament that WhatsApp and Viber could be temporarily blocked when needed in order to capture militants and prevent their criminal activities.
Some people were carrying out criminal activities with the help of these apps, she said.
Digital platforms of businesses, e-commerce and online banking were affected during the internet blackout. The effect was massive for businesses, which bank heavily on Facebook.
Suman Ahmed Sabir, chief strategy officer of international internet gateway Fibre@Home, said businesses like outsourcing, freelancing, call centres, e-commerce and web-based solutions bore the brunt.
“From the duration of the shutdown, the loss might not seem huge, but its long-term effect will be massive,” said Sabir.
Kowser Ahmed, owner of two outsourcing companies, said, “I could not deliver any product to my clients on time.”
MA Hakim, president of Internet Service Providers Association Bangladesh, said they knew that a lot of orders for garments, which account for about 80 percent of the country's exports, are placed using various internet platforms. These meetings were affected, he said.
More than 1,000 Facebook pages on garment export businesses were unreachable, he said.
Maj Gen (retd) Md Abdur Rashid, a security analyst, said the authorities could block social media to ensure safety of the innocent. But many countries do not need to block the social media as they have the capacity to monitor them.
A top official of the Detective Branch, preferring anonymity, told The Daily Star that the services were blocked so that nobody could mobilise their force using the internet.
Jabbar said, “But we need to find solutions. Blocking is not a solution.”