Room for free speech online shrunk during pandemic
Bangladesh's internet freedom fared worse during the years of the pandemic than the years before, found a new report by international think tank Freedom House.
The "Freedom on the net 2021" report gave countries a score between 0 and 100, where 0 meant least free and 100 meant most free. Bangladesh was given 40, a two-point drop from the last year's score.
The country has been classified as having "partly-free" internet because in the last one year it has blocked access to social media, blocked access to websites, shut down the internet, arrested and physically assaulted internet users and conducted technical attacks on the internet.
Bangladesh was classified as "partly-free" both in 2019 and 2018. In those two years, it had scored 44 and 49 respectively.
According to the report, Bangladesh is one of the 38 countries where government authorities initiated legal or administrative reforms affecting tech companies' management of user data.
A new data protection bill proposed in October last year in Bangladesh would also require domestic data storage, said the report.
"Bangladesh's draft Data Protection Act includes data localisation and data mirroring provisions. It also includes extremely broad and far-reaching investigative powers, including the power to obtain access to all personal data and access to any premises," said the report.
It states that Bangladesh's 2020 draft National Cloud Policy includes explicit data localisation for all personal and government data.
"[According to the draft policy] transfers of data is only allowed for backup purposes, but only if the data doesn't include any personal or sensitive data or data that is otherwise 'not detrimental to the security of Bangladesh and important infrastructure' and if the transfer is to a country where Bangladesh can fully enforce its laws through bilateral or multilateral agreements," pointed out the Freedom House report.
The report scores countries across three wide categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.
To score obstacles to access, the report looked at the infrastructural, economic, and political barriers to access; government decisions to shut off connectivity or block specific applications or technologies; legal, regulatory, and ownership control over internet service providers; and independence of regulatory bodies.
To assess how content is limited, the report examined legal regulations on content, technical filtering and blocking of websites, and how digital tools are used for civic mobilisation.
Violations of user rights examines legal protections and restrictions on free expression; surveillance and privacy; and legal and extralegal repercussions for online activities, such as prosecution, extralegal harassment and physical attacks, or cyberattacks.
To score a country in this criteria, questions are asked such as whether there are criminal penalties on online activities protected under international human rights standards, and whether state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users' right to privacy.
Bangladesh was given the least possible scores in those two questions. It also fared extremely poorly in the question: "Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?"
The report said, "More governments have introduced problematic rules on removing users' speech from internet platforms. Some of the laws are designed to suppress content that is critical of the government, rather than protecting users from harmful material."
Other countries that scored in the same range as Bangladesh include Iraq and Rwanda.
"Democratic governments have an obligation to craft regulations that enable users to express themselves freely, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account. Otherwise, new technologies may serve to reinforce and hasten democracy's global decline," mentioned the report.