Over the last two decades, digital information and communication technologies have become the focus of heavy-handed state intervention in Bangladesh. The government introduced two internet security laws, both woefully inadequate to address the challenges of the evolving nature of the internet.
Then in early 2021, in response to a public interest litigation, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission drafted a new online content regulation bill. Disappointingly, the current draft of the regulation mirrors India’s problematic Information Technology Rules, 2021.
In addition to broad categories of “restricted speech,” the regulation mandates traceability of private communications over internet-based messaging services, without affording sufficient safeguards to counteract executive abuse.
This requirement is incompatible with the privacy-protective features of encryption technology, and paves the way for the government to issue overreaching tracing orders and disclosure requests, in violation of citizens’ fundamental right to privacy.
At the same time, the government is also drafting a new data protection legislation, which requires mandatory localisation of personal and non-personal data in Bangladesh.
Notably, the localisation requirement extends to user-generated content, which means potentially all interactions over social media platforms, instant messaging and video communication applications, and emails, as well as metadata of users, may have to be stored in data servers and centres in the country. As the 2020 Freedom House report notes, data localisation is known to have been used to prosecute activists and dissidents, and crack down on democratisation movements.
In Bangladesh, internet laws – like the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006, and the Digital Security Act, 2018 – have been routinely used to bring trumped up charges against journalists, activists, lawyers, and academics, and clampdown on free speech.
One report indicates that at least 2,244 individuals have been accused under the cyber security law between January 2020 and February 2022. While many were arrested for criticising government actions, a few were taken into custody simply for sharing satirical cartoons and caricatures of the prime minister.
Now, with the new online content regulation and localisation law, service providers – including Facebook and YouTube – must not only store user information in Bangladesh, but also comply with the government’s request to remove, trace and disclose them to state agencies.
With broad exemptions conferred to government authorities, and no procedural safeguards or independent oversight mechanisms, there are concerns that these frameworks will create new avenues for state agencies to monitor and intercept content and communications using existing surveillance laws.
This will have a chilling effect on free speech, which will espouse a culture of self-censorship and digital authoritarianism, and exacerbate the risks of repressive actions against journalists, activists, dissidents, and general citizenry for expressing unpopular opinion or dissent.
Amnesty International has said the proposed data protection bill is the newest addition to “an insidious pattern in which the government wants to control the digital lives of people.” Even by the government’s own admission, this law is aimed at doing exactly that.
Service providers would have a perverse incentive to pre-emptively censor lawful expressions, or remove content without sufficient consideration as to its legality, in order to avoid liability. In extreme cases, non-resident companies could discontinue their services in Bangladesh, or not enter the market at all.
Not only are these frameworks antithetical to the principles of free and open internet, it could undermine the country’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as Bangladesh’s Constitution.
AccessNow and 44 other international organisations have issued an open letter, calling on the telecom regulator to withdraw and reconsider the proposed online content regulation. Separately, Global Network Initiative, Asia Internet Coalition, Amnesty International, Internet Society, Transparency International Bangladesh have also submitted comments expressing concerns about the serious implications of these frameworks on the future of the internet and citizens’ constitutional rights.
Bangladesh ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index and scored 40 out of 100 in the 2021 Freedom on the Net. These laws will likely make things worse.
But it is not too late: the government still has time to adopt a forward-leaning and collaborative approach in crafting these complex frameworks, and introduce laws that are balanced, future-proof, fit for purpose and aligned with international benchmarks. This will not only ensure a safer internet, but also spur technological advancement and innovation.
This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.