This blog post is based on key highlights from the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School, held last April 2022 under the Greater Internet Freedom program. Read the rest of the posts here.
A newly proposed bill concerning digital protection reflects Bangladesh’s ongoing efforts to adapt to the evolving digital landscape. However, the country still needs to address urgent issues such as privacy violations and government-backed disinformation.
During the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School and Gender and Digital Rights Fellowship hosted by EngageMedia under the Greater Internet Freedom project, the following issues and related concerns were highlighted.
Online Freedom of Expression: Use of legal tools to control free speech online. Legal tools in Bangladesh are increasingly being used to silence critics and dissent. The government has convicted approximately 890 individuals and shut down 191 news websites for publishing digital content labelled as ‘anti-state propaganda’ under the Digital Security Act, which allows warrantless arrests based solely on suspicion of a crime. The latest proposed measure – the Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms – will take the suppression further by prohibiting any digital content that is deemed threatening to the “sovereignty of Bangladesh”.
Online Privacy: Proposed legislation may threaten marginalised communities. The Biman Bangladesh Airlines alleged email hack and the Telerad Bangladesh cyber attack highlighted the need for a stronger security system. The bill concerning Digital Protection (Proposed DPA) is touted as a potential solution and focuses on localization to ensure the security of citizens’ data. This bill still has some issues, including the exclusion of racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation from the scope of “sensitive data”, which may limit protection for marginalised and vulnerable communities online. The bill also does not differentiate between ‘data breaches’, which affect large-scale users, and ‘privacy violations’, which affect individual users. This could mean disproportionate consequences regarding violations. Bangladesh was also identified as one of the countries where the Pegasus spyware had been in use.
Digital Inclusion and Connectivity: Access improving with help from private sectors. Bangladesh’s efforts to digitise many aspects of daily life, including cashless payment systems and governance, are integrated into the Digital Bangladesh programs. The government has set up Digital Centres in collaboration with private business owners to allow residents to access existing digital government services. Digitalisation has been reported to positively impact accessibility in the country, especially concerning complex bureaucratic services.
Online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV): Targeted attacks towards women journalists. In 2021, at least 64% of women have experienced OGBV in cyberspace. The prevalence is especially high for marginalised communities, and existing reporting measures often do not provide desired results for the victims due to limitations in the legal infrastructure and a lack of understanding concerning technology-facilitated gender-based violence in Bangladesh. For women working as journalists and human rights activists, the threat of OGBV often accompanies other digital risks in the field, including various threats of violence. A 2023 study suggests at least 34% of female journalists have experienced online violence and abuse in the course of their work.
Online Disinformation and Hate Speech: Conditional definition of ‘disinformation’. The country has formed a Coordination Committee aiming to battle ‘disinformation’. The government has taken little action against websites containing pro-government disinformation, and instead targets government critics by labelling their assessment as ‘fake news’. There are also indications that bots and trolls have been employed to produce and amplify disinformation. With the bill providing the government full authority to define disinformation, it is feared that the proposed legislation would create another legal loophole that can be exploited to suppress the public.
Digital Hygiene: Literacy platforms for internet hygiene and safety. The digital literacy rate for internet users in rural Bangladesh is very limited, and the majority of users are not familiar with safeguarding tools to protect their digital activities. The government’s digital literacy centre website provides access to learn important digital skills such as account security and data safekeeping, but it still lacks more advanced information.