Monitoring the new airwaves

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Two incidents in the past year have left Bangladesh’s Telecommunication Regulatory Commission worried. Late last year, Google refused to comply with a government request to set up a mirror server to prevent internet users in Bangladesh from accessing a controversial film footage defaming Islam. More recently, in the post-Shahbagh days, the government was caught off guard by the misinformation volleyed by the ‘atheist bloggers’ and Jamaat-backed propagandists and the political unrest that followed. As such, the BTRC decided to install special filtering technology to monitor internet traffic and asked international internet gateway operators to limit available bandwidth. Although in an encouraging move, the BTRC later agreed to remove a specific ban on YouTube in Bangladesh and also the bandwidth limitation, the regulatory authorities’ overarching policy decision mark a new phase of information control in the country.

In an otherwise fledgling democracy where a large number of our institutions have been highly politicised, Bangladesh’s media has historically played an objective role in reflecting and influencing national discourse. The explosion in the number of late night talk shows on all our TV channels is a good sign of that. On the lighter side, it proves our reputation as a society which loves to talk politics at every opportunity. What has been encouraging of late is the added dimension of e-participation by ordinary citizens who have suddenly found a voice in online media. The rescue efforts at Rana Plaza, Savar in May is a perfect example of Bangladeshi netizens utilizing the internet to assist and often guide official rescue and rehabilitation efforts. The strength of this form of common participation lies in the decentralised nature of online activism and in theory, provides a check on the power of the state. Against that backdrop, the BTRC’s attempt to take control of the airwaves is naïve at best and dangerous in reality. Simply on the principles of freedom of speech, any arbitrary gate keeping of information presents a problematic scenario for ordinary citizens’ right to freely express their opinions.

BTRC-Bangladesh214The government’s best defence for this measure has been such internet filtering is necessary “to keep Bangladesh safe from harmful internet content and material that threaten national unity and solidarity, and are derogatory to religious beliefs, or are obscene”. Understandably, the authorities are pointing to the harm inflicted by irresponsible online activism after the Shahbagh protests and leading up to Hifazat-e Islam’s Dhaka siege. However, it is a very fine line between what can be considered harmful and threatening to national security, and opinions that offer constructive criticism of the government or the ruling party. Unfortunately, in most forms of censorship, such lines are blurred very quickly. It is a significant conflict of interest if the government itself is in charge of deciding where to draw that line given our state’s historical discomfort with internal dissent. If such censorship leads to further restrictions before all forms of dissent is curbed, that is a dangerous proposition for Bangladesh.

In an article I wrote in March about the potential impact of e-politics, I suggested that our government and its bureaucracy is very likely out of touch with the realities of monitoring and controlling online content. Take the example of China, the enforcers of the Great Firewall, the single most powerful state-backed internet censorship system in practice. In reality, the Chinese government strictly monitors all online content and blocks access to popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Despite stringent controls, Chinese users have been reported to be using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) — platforms that are primarily designed for foreign businesses to access data outside China’s firewall — to circumvent the official restrictions behind commercially valuable traffic. A recent article on the Foreign Affairs details how Chinese internet users get around the firewall through GoAgent, a platform which is powered by a business-oriented cloud system provided by Google called App Engine. While App Engine was originally built for software developers, GoAgent lets any Chinese Internet user employ it as a personal proxy server, allowing access to censored websites, email servers, or social media services. The sophistication of the Chinese example should serve as a warning for our regulators at home – it is practically impossible to filter out all unfavourable content and create Bangladesh’s own firewall internet system. The growing number of Internet users, including many with formal training in information systems, will challenge the firewall and the government may well be left to play catch up.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

At a basic level, most internet users in Bangladesh access the Internet for personal, not political, reasons – this cohort increasingly includes university students browsing online to carry out research and general users connecting through social media. It is a safe assumption that most users surfing the web want to watch popular YouTube videos more than to spread anti-religious material. People do not expect or need their activities to be clandestine — a fast and unrestricted connection should do. On the business side, Bangladesh is at the inception of e-commerce and online banking access and with demand for such services set to grow, an unhindered internet system takes on vital importance.

Amidst this short-sighted policy move by the BTRC, it is encouraging though to witness that that the parliamentary body on information and communication has questioned the move and recommended reinstating internet bandwidth. The most recent decision of the BTRC to open up YouTube is another good sign. It is however key to remember that when the current Prime Minister promised the idea of a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ by 2020, any future arbitrary control contradicts such promises. Our regulators ought to reflect on the impact of such measures in other countries and recognise that our integration into the broader online mediascape will not be served by impeding the free flow of information for Bangladeshis.

Source: Bd news24

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