After a wave of student-led protests in Bangladesh this year, the government is tightening control over social media, especially Facebook. In recent months, the Awami League-led regime has cleared projects that will enable them to keep a close watch on social networking platforms.

Among these is a $11 million project this month to create a special wing in the Bangladesh Computer Security Incident Response Team, a government body tasked with looking into cyber threats, to monitor social media and identify material that is against the state, a government minister told this reporter.

“We’ll monitor social media, check rumours, and then find out their sources,” Mostafa Jabbar, the Minister for Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology said. The government also wants Facebook not to allow information that is against the state to be posted, he said.

Since April, the country has been gripped by recurring agitations. In April and May, university students organised multiple protests against quotas in government jobs , which reserve 56% of openings for various categories and 44% are for general candidates. Then, throughout July till August 8, there were a series of agitations demanding road safety measures, which were sparked after two high school students who were killed by a speeding bus in the capital, Dhaka, on June 29.

In both movements, social media played a key role in drumming up support. Facebook, in particular, was used to schedule protests and meetings and encourage people to come on the streets. However, the platform was also reportedly used to spread rumours and misinformation, including false reports of students being raped and killed. Ministers in Sheikh Hasina’s government and Awami League members also alleged that Opposition leaders were using social media to fuel disinformation and incite anger against the ruling party.

Cracking down

The government has responded to these protests with a massive crackdown involving widespread arrests. So far, 97 people have been arrested for alleged violence and rumour-mongering on social media. Some of these arrests have been made under the Special Powers Act, which allows for preventive detentions. Three people, including photographer Shahidul Alam, were held under Section 57 of the controversial Information and Communication Technology Act, which provides for imprisonment of up to 14 years for spreading “any material which is false and obscene” and can threaten law and order, hurt religious sentiments or “prejudice the image of the state or person”.

After the protests ended, a government representative called on an official from Facebook and had a long meeting with him, Jabbar said.

“Aside from spreading rumours, a lot of anti-state activities were conducted using these platforms,” Jabbar said. “So, we have decided to take action to prevent such activities in the future.”

Jabbar said the Facebook official had been told that if they want to run their operation in Bangladesh, they need to do so by abiding by the laws of the country. “As a sort of a publisher of news and posts, Facebook too needs to take the responsibility,” he added. “It should not allow publishing of any post that goes against the state.”

The minister said the government may even block the social networking website if necessary. “The first priority is security of the state and its people,” he said. “For ensuring these, we can sacrifice the small in the greater interest.”

Bangladeshi students gather for a protest against quotas for certain groups of people in government jobs in Dhaka on April 11. Credit: Rehman Asad/AFP
Bangladeshi students gather for a protest against quotas for certain groups of people in government jobs in Dhaka on April 11. Credit: Rehman Asad/AFP

Close watch

On June 12, the Bangladesh government had cleared a plan to procure equipment worth $28 million for mobile phone, email and social media surveillance. This technology will help ramp up the operations of the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre, which functions under Bangladesh’s Home Ministry and is tasked with providing “lawful communication interception facilities”. The Centre is used to tap phone conversations or electronic communication when required by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The deal reportedly allows the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre to buy equipment from international firms for remote call interception, to monitor the deep web, and for content blocking and filtering, among other things.

This is not the first time that the government has clamped down on social media. In November 2015, Bangladesh had blocked Facebook and some instant messaging apps including WhatsApp for about a month, citing security concerns, after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of two men convicted of war crimes during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.

In June 2016, the government had made an arrangement with Facebook, Google and Microsoft according to which it can request any information from them in case of any “unexpected incident”, which has to be provided within 48 hours.

Privacy concerns

A cyber security law expert, who did not wish to be identified, said that government monitoring of social media poses significant risks to privacy and free expression.

Even public social media posts can reveal extensive private details about a person, said the expert. Messages and posts that are not marked public on social media (that is, can only be viewed by those on one’s friends list), may contain especially sensitive information.

“In light of the absence of internet privacy law, the government has enormous power over the use of citizens’ personal information and internet activity since nothing demarcates lawful use of user data from its unlawful use,” said the expert.

Article 43 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh recognises an individuals right to “privacy of correspondence and other means of communication”. However, there are no data privacy or protection laws that outline how this information should be safeguarded.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka