Today at a summit organized by a ruling party wing, the post and telecommunications minister boasted the government’s ability to “control” any websites, Prothom Alo reported, clearly referring to its recently acquired power to block websites on a whim. “The state has attained the capabilities to regulate any websites,” Mustafa Jabbar was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “The most powerful weapon that the state now possesses is that it can now regulate any website as it wishes. It is a big accomplishment.”
He also regretted not being able to control social media, saying that when someone posts a status or a video on social media, it cannot be dealt with instantly. “However,” he said, “I hope that it will be possible [for the government] to interfere in this regard, too. This can happen from September. Then, it will not be possible for one to propagate anything on Facebook or YouTube as they wish.”
Why Jabbar’s statement is problematic?
Although it is not clear how Mustafa Jabbar seeks to “regulate” the social media directly, the mere prospect of it is terrifying. Not only because a powerful minister threatens to bar people from using social media in a normal way but also that a high-level official can be so brazen and blatant in issuing threats to the public. Even the most restrictive regimes in the world pretend to be fair with their citizens. And, we have a minister who says being able to restrict the digital space or block websites is a success.
Perils of whimsical decisions
The post and telecommunications ministry under Mr. Jobbar has lately been extremely motivated in shutting down contents it does not like. It has recently restricted access to hundreds of thousands of websites that contain explicit contents. The decision was obviously ineffective. People could easily evade the block using a free VPN service available on the Internet.
What was really ridiculous is that the ministry shut down several popular and largely legitimate websites such as Reddit, Google Books, somewhereinblog (the largest Bengali community blogging site) in the process. While the minister argued that there are Reddit pages that have adult contents, he cited ambiguous reasons—such as hosting “anti-government” contents—as to why somewhereinblog was blocked. “Somewhereinblog was a very controversial platform. Its content was not only anti-government but also scandalous. They were also responsible for spreading atheism in the country,” Jabbar told DW.
The decision had other serious consequences, too. As Google Books and a subdomain of Google’s Blogger platform was blocked, several major services of Google including Gmail were significantly disrupted across the country. And because a WordPress subdomain was blocked, it was impossible to access to any subdomains hosted by the world’s largest blogging platform.
In December, shortly before the election, the government blocked dozens of news websites—including prominent ones such as poriborton.com, priyo.com and the official website of the opposition—citing national security concerns, although it was evident that the decision was entirely partisan.
Blocking, or not blocking?
Interestingly, during the election, a host of counterfeit websites mimicking those of the mainstream news outlets—such as Prothom Alo, BBC Bangla, Bangla Tribune—popped up with an almost identical design and domain URL. The websites relentlessly published anti-opposition propaganda in a clear attempt to confuse the voters.
And it took Facebook and other major tech companies to take down pages of those websites. They also issued a public statement saying that individuals acting on behalf of the government were behind the pages, and most possibly, the websites. That was a real scandal, but the government agencies were silent. That episode clearly showed how politically motivated the decisions (to block websites) usually are.
Press affected severely
The government also shut down legitimate and credible news websites—such as The Wire, Al Jazeera English—for their critical coverage. The Joban, an alternative news medium, was blocked simply because it ran a translated copy of an investigative report of Al Jazeera, implicating a high-level official. Even the websites of The Daily Star and bdnews24.com—two of the most read and influential news outlets—were shut down briefly. In bdnews24’s case, a significant bite of its news item, for which it was blocked, had to be removed before it was unblocked.
But there was even an instance that a news website was blocked purely because of the minister’s personal vendetta. bangla.report—a online news website—ran a report describing an incident in which Mustafa Jabbar meanly treated a physically challenged individual when he sought some help from the minister. The episode led Jabbar to call directly the reporter and threaten to block the website if the report was not removed. And, he made good on his threat.
When asked, Jabbar did not deny that he was the one who got the website blocked but falsely indicated that the website published news items implicating the state. “If the website publishes news that goes against the state interest, then that website could be shut down,” Jabbar told Al Jazeera. “I am the minister of Post and Telecommunication, so I, of course, have my say on the matter.”
That is when the power to block websites summarily was used for simply personal reasons. Also, in the case of somewhereinblog, Mr. Jabbar and the blog site share an old feud (the blog preferred and encouraged its tens of thousands of users to use open-source free Avro-run Unicode-supported Bengali writing system over Jabbar’s commercial ANSI-based system, Bijoy, infuriating the latter), which some suspected played a role in the ministry’s decision to block the latter. These cases mentioned above are everything that can go wrong when someone is given the ultimate power to block websites on whims.
And, there’s a high possibility that if the minister somehow gets to read this op-ed he will block this website, too. What’s ironic about his obsession with blocking websites is that before becoming minister Jabbar was a proponent of free internet. He once told my former colleague, Moyukh Mahtab of The Daily Star, that he was “in principle completely against the blocking or banning of websites for any amount of time, for any reason.”
It must not go unchecked
We need to have serious debates as to how and under what circumstances and using what procedures a website, or a news website at least, can be blocked. There has to be a transparent procedure because such an extreme decision directly and profoundly affects the issue of freedom of expression and press freedom enshrined in the constitution. No one should be allowed to block websites on a whim.
Furthermore, it should be made clear by us through our protests that the broader citizenry does not welcome such moves, so far as to make the minister feel that being able to be draconian and restrict the digital space is NOT an accomplishment in this modern age, at least not the one to be proud of.