After seeing one key editor jailed, several bloggers arrested, and two TV channels shutdown, Bangladesh is now witnessing the unfolding of another round of thought-censorship. This time it came as an instruction from the telecom regulators where they have directed the service providers to reduce user upload speed by 75%, with the exception of major corporations and business critical institutions (BTRC cuts upload bandwidth).
The official excuse for such medieval interference to modern life's one of the key utilities is to "reduce illegal Voice Over Internet (VOIP)" traffic. The unofficial reason, however, is speculated to be the government's last ditch effort to make it difficult for people to upload 'problematic' videos, images, TV talk show clips, etc. in the social media. Barring an outright ban of platforms like Facebook, this is perhaps the only way left for the beleaguered Bangladesh government to stop the glut of embarrassing materials spreading over the social media in recent months. I am sure the readers know which materials I am referring to here.
Restrictions and bans are not an easy thing to be removed in Bangladesh. For example, one popular, albeit controversial newspaper, Daily Amardesh still cannot be printed, despite having no court mandated restrictions. Two TV channels are still off air without any valid cause. And YouTube, the most popular video sharing portal is still banned under most of the ISPs.
Given such history, it is most likely that this new mandate on reduction of upload speed may well stay in place for a long time.
How valid are the rumours?
Rumour has it that after successfully controlling the print and electronic media, the authorities in Bangladesh are now finally moving their focus to the alternative media, i.e., Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc (Facebook, Twitter control suggested). Currently out of several dozen media outlets, dailies, and cable TV channels, only a handful still continues to distribute materials critical of the current government. The rest very much act like state owned agencies or outright "brothers in arms".
This is ridiculously and sadly true that a large section of the middle class now turn to the social media outlets, particularly Facebook pages, for news and critical information of the country. Controlling this last frontier of dissent is no easy task for the authorities. So far, the government has tried banning several popular (a.k.a. controversial) Facebook pages; but with limited success. The pages reappeared within days, with slightly modified content and name. Therefore, social media, particularly Facebook remains as the final frontier standing between the authorities and complete mind control of the population. As it appears now, making content uploading difficult is perhaps the most 'implementable' ploy that could be adopted by the state.
But how valid is this conspiracy theory? Isn't there legitimate reasons for banning VOIP? The answer is yes, there is legitimate reasons for monitoring illegal VOIP business, but that has not been clearly the focus in recent years. The last time anyone ran a crusade on VOIP business was the caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed. The truth is that both the major political parties have key allies deeply engaged in VOIP business, and these parties are extremely unlikely to be serious about banning VOIP. Moreover, even if VOIP is indeed the target, there were numerous techniques for specifically banning or restricting illegal VOIP business. That could have been done without imposing draconian restrictions on home users' upload speed.
In my mind, the magnitude of the ban indicates something significant at stake, more so than just a few hundred crore taka through tax revenues.
Who is effected?
The reduced speed is in effect from Thursday (June 16) 6pm, according to bdnews24.com. The government press note states that banks, financial institutions, software firms, travel agents, embassies and government organisations will be exempted from the speed reduction. The authorities have also asked for a list of such organisations within seven days. This may sound like a reasonable list of exemptions. However, even this exemption process is replete with negative effects.
First of all, by favouring certain institutions over the other, the government is undertaking the role of picking winners and losers within the private sector. For example, there are numerous small IT firms that carry out outsourcing projects for foreign buyers. Many of these IT firms do not have more than two programmers/employees. Will these IT companies be considered for "exemption" from the speed ban? Unlikely.
The business of creating a ban-list, and a ban-free list by a government agency will create another opportunity of corruption. It will be a windfall for those government officials, who will be lucky enough to maintain a book detailing who gets regular speed vs. who gets reduced speed.
Skype conversations, an extremely important mode of communication for both expatriates and resident Bangladeshis, will be a big victim of the government's shallow objectives.
Dissident voices within the country, who are broadcasting photos and videos detailing various layers of oppression, are probably going to be the primary targets of the reduced speed mandate. It is noteworthy that in countries like Syria, their government not only reduced speed, but outright knocked down internet connectivity for their population. Still, there was no shortage of video footages and troubling information spreading from that country.
People's sentiment matters
The current government came to power with significant support from the youth voters back in 2008. Availability and usability of the internet will be a topic that should be dear to the hearts of these voters as they prepare for voting in the next election. Many of these youth voters are already annoyed at the long lasting ban on YouTube. Now the reduction of upload speed will be an additional layer of annoyance for many more.
A significant portion of the country's foreign currency is earned through expatriate workers. Many of these folks maintain family at home, who rely on internet based video and audio communication. Any disturbance to that will be a real vote losing concern, due to their direct interference with people's communications.
Human rights groups at home and abroad will definitely interpret the government's sudden crackdown on internet speed as a direct affront to the country's already vulnerable record on freedom of speech and expression. Political rivals of the current regime will take the reduced upload speed as a challenge, and may end up becoming more slanderous in their uploaded content just out of vengeance.
And finally, foreign journalists, who are currently on a rampage whenever Bangladeshi high officials are showing up for interviews, will snatch this issue to scoop another round of knock-out punches.
For our part, we will be left watching our national leader busy saying "Wrong, wrong, Listen, Listen"- without anyone sincerely willing to listen to perpetrators of digital tyranny.
Shafquat Rabbee is a freelance contributor