On April 3, news broke that the cabinet division had forwarded a letter to the telecom ministry asking that access to Facebook be blocked every night from 12:00 to 6:00 am. The reason cited was that use of the popular social media site – with 21,000,000 users from Bangladesh as of June, 2016 (internetworldstats.com) – was “affecting the students” and “dimming the working capabilities of the youths”. The panic on the internet was magnified by some reports online with misleading headlines which made it sound like that the decision to block Facebook had already been made. By night, people had calmed down a bit: the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) had written to the ministry saying that the move was unrealistic. A day later, on April 4, the State Minister for Post and Telecommunications, Tarana Halim made assurances that there will be no bar on Facebook.
Over the course of this news' lifecycle, a span of less than 24 hours, concerns regarding the feasibility of the move, the impact on businesses, and even clickbait news headlines were raised. As important as all of those concerns are, a key issue was being ignored, especially by the authorities discussing the ban: does a government, especially one committed to bringing about a “Digital Bangladesh”, have a right in the first place to block a site on the internet, that too, for something that is the concern of a private individual, or their guardians?
To start with the basics, what Facebook provides is a digital space, which can be argued to be a place where an individual can express his thoughts and opinions, where they can digitally associate and interact in a common forum. To extrapolate from our Constitution (Articles 37 to 39), all of these rights are fundamental to our citizens, and if the state wishes to conform to it, it must do so in the digital sphere too. It should not be the job of the government to play the parents and enforce behavioural or moral codes.
Freedom House, an organisation funded by, among others, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter, scores countries over the world in terms of freedom on the internet enjoyed by uses, where 0 equals most-free, and 100, less-free. In its Freedom on the Net 2016 report Bangladesh received a score of 56/100 (partly free). In terms of individual criterions, it can be seen, that we scored 14/25 when it came to Obstacles of Access and 14/35 in terms of Limits on Content. Citing the various instances where Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber were blocked nationwide, and the draconian ICT Act itself, Freedom House reported: “Of the 65 countries assessed, 34 have been on a negative trajectory since June 2015. The steepest declines were in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, and Libya.”
It is important to note here that much of Freedom House's assessment of Bangladesh was based on the frequent attacks on bloggers and the ICT Act's provisions for cracking down on freedom of speech. And although, it may be argued, that these cases differ from the one at hand, the issue I am trying to highlight is that given the nature of the internet, attempts of block and ban websites are fundamentally misguided and contrary to the spirit of the internet itself. If the government is sincere in its attempt to increase internet penetration of the population (which has indeed increased significantly over the last few years, especially due to the advent of 3G mobile internet), then trying to cordon off parts of the internet, even if they are for noble purposes, will ultimately end in failure. This is where we as a nation have failed to grasp the nature and potential of the internet, expressed beautifully by the creator of the web, Tim Berners Lee: “[I]t is the largest repository for information and knowledge the world has yet seen, and our most powerful communications tool. The web is now a public resource on which people, businesses, communities and governments depend. It is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium.”
Yet, our responses, when it comes to dealing with policy regarding the internet has been one of censorship. From blocking communication apps, websites on moral grounds, restricting access to social media, these policies make it abundantly clear, that when it comes to freedom of expression, we are uncomfortable. The prosecutions under the ICT Act have shown us how comments made on social media sites have led to disproportional punishments. It acts to restrict a medium whose primary allure is the freedom it provides. Our government even asked that Facebook require a national ID for opening new accounts – a ridiculous proposal that, unsurprisingly, Facebook did not agree to.
Ultimately, what suffers from policies such as this is freedom of expression and the press. Instead of working towards policy which aims to protect internet users and provide safety on the net, it seeks to set up new barriers to access.
Mustafa Jabbar, the president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), in an interview over the phone, when asked about the preliminary recommendation of the government emphasised on exactly this. He said that he is in principle completely against the blocking or banning of websites for any amount of time, for any reason. On the feasibility side, he mentions that the blocking of Facebook would be irrelevant: the students would simply move on to another site. No matter the intention behind the restrictions, from militancy to disruption of studies, the nature of the internet means anyone with basic proficiency can either bypass the restrictions or simply move on to other platforms. In other words, the only way making a ban effective would be to restrict access to the internet itself, something we as a democracy and as signatory of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot in any way endorse.
It is heartening that the BTRC recommended along the same lines when it called the cabinet proposal unrealistic. They rightly pointed out how there are always alternatives which would then be used, and also that people who have friends and family living on the other side of the hemisphere, would face serious problems in communication. Our thriving digital commerce industry would surely be affected as well. Mustafa Jabbar further pointed out that a lot of business, such as ad placements and targeted marketing, is outsourced to people in this country by foreign firms. A ban such as this would seriously disrupt the work flow of such businesses.
But what is disappointing about the BTRC's response is that they too framed the debate around if such a move could be done, instead of if it should be done. The point of this article is not if businesses would be affected, but if a government should police how and what sites we access (of course there are always valid exceptions, such as in the cases of child porn and sale of weapons). Tim Berners Lee said in an interview with Wired magazine in 2014, “the web's full potential is just starting to show. A radically open, egalitarian and decentralised platform, it is changing the world, and we are still only scratching the surface of what it can do.” The invention of the internet has meant a radical shift in how we learn, interact and express ourselves. In this world, Bangladesh has barely started dipping its toes. For whatever reason, be it national security or the good of the children and youth, this fundamental freedom of the internet cannot be destroyed. The questions the government should be asking is how the use of the internet can be made safer, the private data of the users be protected, and what infrastructural and policy reforms may be made to ensure that access to the internet can translate to its radical goals. Instead we seem to be busy in trying to dictate people's private lives online and controlling what they can or cannot access. One cannot run a race with their feet tied: Digital Bangladesh cannot be based on the culture of blocking and banning.
The writer is a member of Editorial Department, The Daily Star.