This article is written by Activate Rights as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Activate Rights, an youth-led collective effort, is devoted to strengthening online rights in Bangladesh, where digital rights knowledge is low. To counter the widespread infringement of digital rights, the initiative gives priority to lobbying, circumvention, documentation, and network measuring techniques. Its goal is to foster a more democratic and open digital environment where everyone can fully exercise their digital rights by offering assistance to small, volunteer, youth-led activist organisations around the nation.
In Bangladesh, a nation with a growing youth population connected to the digital world, stories of stifled expression and digital oppression are increasingly common. Repressive laws, frequent internet shutdowns, and censorship are some of the obstacles faced by young citizens who seek to voice their opinions and concerns in a digital age.
Challenges of the youth in Digital Bangladesh
Imagine being a 15-year-old high school student, hearing about your government imposing additional taxes on mobile call rates during a pandemic and rising costs. Coming from a struggling family, you vent your frustration on Facebook with a two-line parody subtly criticising the prime minister’s governance.
The next day, the police gets notified, and you find yourself in a juvenile correction facility, facing a defamation lawsuit for your satirical social media post. This ordeal costs you years of education and forces your family to sell their land in pursuit of ‘justice’—a term now questioned in Bangladesh.
This absurd tale mirrors the experiences of Md. Emon, a resident of north-central Bangladesh was detained in June 2020. He had to abandon school and sacrifice family land to fight his legal battle. This story aligns with at least 68 Bangladeshi teenagers who have faced arrest or imprisonment under the 2018 Digital Security Act 2018 for merely expressing themselves online.
In Bangladesh, there are situations when you don’t even need to speak, and the words of another person can land you in jail. In 2020, 17-year-old Khadijatul Kubra faced jail for hosting a Facebook webinar with a guest who made critical remarks about the government. For that, she spent over a year in jail waiting for her trial to begin.
In the words of TransEnd founder Lamea Tanjin Tanha: “In Bangladesh, where fundamental human rights remain elusive for diverse communities, the concept of internet freedom can appear as an unreachable ideal. Limited digital literacy and access heighten our communities’ vulnerability in digital space.”
Evolution of Cybersecurity Laws: The ICT Act to CSA
Censorship in the digital arena in Bangladesh stifles different advocates, including the youth. Draconian digital laws disregard human rights, and instill fear in youth, hindering them from addressing crucial concerns like government transparency, anti-corruption, minority safety, and public welfare. Internet shutdowns and website blocking restrict youth advocates’ ability to mobilize for protests, exercise free speech, access information, and maintain a democratic way of life. However, the youth are voicing concerns. They are increasingly addressing digital concerns alongside their physical battles for rights and welfare.
Bangladesh introduced the Information and Communication Technology Act in 2006 with the claimed intention of establishing legal validity and security for digital mediums of communication. It enhanced the penalties for various offenses through amendments in 2016. Over the years, Section 57 of the Act was used to persecute journalists and critical voices sparking outrage at home and abroad. In response, a draft for a new law called the Digital Security Act (DSA) was approved in January 2018 and passed by the parliament in September of that year. The Digital Security Act replaced several sections of the Information and Communication Technology Act and rearranged their offenses into new sections.
Individuals from all backgrounds, including journalists, lawmakers, artists, workers, teachers, and students, have been imprisoned under the DSA. Tragically, on February 25, 2021, Bangladeshi writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in custody while detained without bail for nearly a year under DSA.
Again, to ease continuous global uproar and protest, the Cyber Security Act of 2023 (CSA) was enacted last September, maintaining the former DSA’s vague definitions of crimes, reducing penalties, and introducing certain bailable provisions. But similar to its predecessor, the CSA permits arrests and searches without a warrant despite human rights concerns. It also empowers law enforcement agencies to control and remove digital content.
However, stopping the DSA and the ICT Act does not stop the horror. Section 57 of the ICT Act was removed five years ago, but in a 10-year-old case, two prominent human rights activists in Bangladesh were imprisoned under the provision just this September. After the Cabinet passed the CSA, the Law Minister stated during a press conference, “Changes have been made, not abolished. Some sentences have been altered, and the name has been given a new name.” According to the Minister’s declaration, the 7,000 DSA cases will continue, as will the ICT Act cases.
Restrictions on Connecting
While these regulations have a direct impact on people’s lives, there are some more types of censorship whose legal interpretation or implementation is unclear and disoriented. One such is the internet shutdown. A contributor to this piece, who experienced this firsthand, was an 11th grader in Dhaka on August 4, 2018. He joined fellow students in a protest for safer roads after two teenagers tragically died in a bus accident. While protesting, the government suddenly cut off mobile internet, preventing him from communicating with his family. This marked his initial experience with the distressing feeling of being forcibly disconnected.
Since 2009, Bangladesh has experienced regular internet outages, including app restrictions and speed reductions. From 2012 until mid-2022, Bangladesh saw 17 such shutdowns, according to a multinational effort called the Optima project. Alarmingly, 88% of Bangladeshis said they have experienced internet outages in the last three years. According to Access Now, Bangladesh was among the top five nations in 2022 according to the number of internet shutdowns enacted. At least six of the 2022 shutdowns occurred during political protests. Moreover, there have been instances where internet services in Rohingya refugee camps have been taken down for a lengthy amount of time.
Internet blackouts are a common tactic used by authoritarian regimes to quell dissent and put down uprisings throughout the world. Governments increasingly shut off the internet to stop people from complaining and protesting. The evidence is clear from the road safety movement and recent gatherings of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), where the government blocked mobile internet in several divisions, including Barisal, Rangpur, Faridpur, and Sylhet. They justify the shutdowns by highlighting the need for safety or to stop conflict. But when they do this, it harms a wide range of communities.
The internet has transformed into an essential aspect of life, extending beyond communication and entertainment. It empowers online businesses and critical services like blood banks, crucial during emergencies. But the shutdowns adversely affect all the young people who operate online businesses, deliver meals, maintain blood banks, or advocate for human rights and community welfare issues.
Censorship on Portals
In Bangladesh, there’s another type of censorship where certain websites and content are made unavailable to people. The government of Bangladesh routinely arbitrarily blocks online information, particularly critical websites, news sources, and social media. Under the pretence of safeguarding national interests, the lack of openness and notice violates residents’ rights by limiting access to essential services like healthcare, education, and livelihoods.
Bangladesh has a recurring history of online censorship, including the 2009 YouTube block over a leaked Prime Minister’s meeting. In 2015, social media sites like Facebook and WhatsApp were banned for a month. The government imposed restrictions on news websites in 2016 and 2018, and Google services were disrupted in 2018. A 2019 High Court ruling led to thousands of website blocks and last January, 191 websites were shut down for “anti-state news,” imposing significant online limitations.
Limited tech understanding by authorities harms Bangladeshi freelancers and tech pros. In December 2019, the government blocked Netra News for exposing a corruption scandal. Netra News tried to use Google Cloud Firebase Storage, but the government blocked it, impacting Android app developers. Medium, where young activists write on welfare concerns, faced similar restrictions for critical articles on COVID-19 policies.
A developer, who chose to remain anonymous, shared his thoughts with a news portal named Bangla, saying, “It appears that… they [the government] could not have imagined that restricting a website would create such barriers to app development for the thousands of Bangladeshi developers. They are eliminating opportunities for Android app developers nationwide to work to ban a recently launched website.” This anguish is shared by many young people of Bangladesh who are only attempting to support themselves or find a voice online.
Making Power Accountable for Damages
Due to a lack of clear legislative standards on when such shutdowns are justified, compliance with internet shutdown legislation is rare in Bangladesh. This regulatory uncertainty further compounds the issue. Notably, decision-makers, including the government and BTRC, have consistently evaded accountability, failing to provide solid explanations before or after internet outages and website blockades occurred. It’s worth highlighting the peculiar role of telecommunications companies in implementing internet censorship, primarily through the deliberate reduction or suspension of mobile data speeds and website access. These companies have a broad young audience, but they seem to neglect their evident responsibility to inform users about such interruptions, showing a lack of accountability towards their users.
Bangladesh has yet to address the concern of digital rights. And to make it happen, young people are taking action. Just a few years ago, digital rights were barely recognized in the country. Presently, a few collectives are actively engaged in promoting digital rights, confronting lawmakers, fostering dialogue, building compelling arguments, and producing localized resources to advance internet freedom.
One such example is Activate Rights, a youth-led initiative in Bangladesh dedicated to improving internet rights. These activities have also led to opposition political organizations raising their concerns about digital rights. This article is one such attempt.
Nevertheless, more engagement and support are required to advance youth-driven initiatives for internet freedom.
Subinoy Mustofi Eron wrote the piece overall, with assistance from Shoeb Abdullah on the internet shutdown section and Kazi Rakib Hossain helping with the legal aspects. All the contributors are from Activate Rights.