Use of tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism has led to a sharp global increase in the abuse of civil liberties and shrinking online space for civic activism
Bangladesh is one of the five countries where freedom on the Internet has declined the most between June 2018 and May 2019, according to a study by Freedom House, an organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.
Bangladesh has scored 44 out of 100 on the Freedom on the Net 2019 index, which indicates the "partly free" nature of the Internet in the country.
It is behind Sri Lanka (49) and India (55) among the South Asian countries included in the study, the 10th edition of the index.
Bangladesh's scores have dropped for the fifth consecutive year since 2016 when its score was 56. The score has dropped 5 points in the current period.
The biggest decline in freedom on the Internet was registered in Sudan (25) followed by Kazakhstan (32) and Brazil (64).
Only 16 countries showed improvements in their Internet freedom scores, with Ethiopia recording the biggest improvement this year.
According to the latest index, Iceland is the world's best protector of Internet freedom with a score of 95, having registered no civil or criminal cases against its users for online expression during the coverage period.
"Freedom on the Net" is a comprehensive study of Internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world's Internet users.
The methodology of the study includes 21 questions and nearly 100 sub-questions, divided into three categories – Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violations of User Rights.
"The countries included in the study have been selected to represent diverse geographical regions and regime types," says the study by the US-based NGO Freedom House.
The main focus of the study is the crisis surrounding social media.
"Social media allow ordinary people, civic groups, and journalists to reach a vast audience at little or no cost, but they have also provided an extremely useful and inexpensive platform for malign influence operations by foreign and domestic actors alike," says the report.
"...social media platforms have enabled the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data on entire populations. Sophisticated mass surveillance that was once feasible only for the world's leading intelligence agencies is now affordable for a much broader range of states," it says.
The study reveals that such use of "tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism" has led to "a sharp global increase in the abuse of civil liberties and shrinking online space for civic activism".
Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on an overall decline since June 2018.
A record 47 of these countries, including Bangladesh, featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech, the study finds.
It finds that Bangladesh government resorted to blocking independent news websites, restricting mobile networks, and arresting journalists and ordinary users alike centring mass protests calling for better road safety and other reforms and violence during general election to "maintain control over the population and limit the spread of unfavorable information".
Scenario in Bangladesh
The study says the number of Internet users has been steadily increasing in Bangladesh, mostly through mobile Internet, which was recently upgraded to faster 4G service. The government estimated Internet penetration at 55 percent in March 2019.
Restrictions on connectivity to mobile Internet service and social media platforms imposed by the government increased most notably during key political events such as the December 2018 general election, the study says.
Mobile networks were restricted to limit mass protests, while the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) blocked access to 58 news websites in December 2018 on grounds of national security and publishing fake news. Later, it unblocked four of them, but the 54 other sites were still inaccessible at the end of the study period.
"In August 2018, the government also threatened to block Facebook and to introduce content filtering for social media usage in the country," the study says.
"Authorities employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete legitimate content. Many cases are not publicly disclosed," it adds.
Referring to killings of bloggers in recent years, the study says online journalists and social media commentators in Bangladesh continue to report a climate of self-censorship on political and religious topics.
The study says Bangladesh's online media landscape is "vibrant, with a number of online outlets that give voice to a range of views".
It, however, finds that occasional blocking of social media platforms and communications apps has threatened the diversity of online contents in Bangladesh.
It says violations of user rights intensified during the period, with violence against online activists and journalists. Arrests surged around the general election and student protest.
"In Bangladesh, individuals are frequently penalized for online activities that are protected under international human rights standards. The number of arrests and prosecutions under the ICT Act and the newly introduced DSA [Digital Security Act] increased during the coverage period," it says.
"Authorities used social media content – including likes, shares, and posts – as justification for many of the arrests," it adds.
Recommendations for Bangladesh
The study offers a set of recommendations for policymakers, the private sector and the civil society to improve Internet freedom in Bangladesh.
It suggests improving transparency and oversight of online political advertisements, protecting elections from cyberattacks with paper ballots and election audits, strictly regulating the use of social media surveillance tools and the collection of information by government agencies and law enforcement, and enacting robust data privacy legislation, among others.
It also advises the authorities to ensure that all Internet-related laws and practices adhere to the international human rights law and standards.
It urges the private sector to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and conduct human rights impact assessments for new market, committing to doing no harm.
The study suggests that the civil society continue to raise awareness about government censorship and surveillance efforts.
'Decline is normal'
Information technology expert Sumon Ahmed Sabir thinks the decline of freedom on the Internet is normal in Bangladesh.
"There are four aspects of activity on the Internet – transparency, privacy, security, and freedom of speech. But one of these factors challenges another," he told The Business Standard on the government's blocking of websites and online content.
"Transparency challenges privacy, while freedom of speech challenges security, and vice versa," he explained.
"There is a lack of knowledge about new technologies at the policymaking level. So, to address any kind of breach the government takes the path of blocking websites and contents," he added.
About the observation made in the study that the international human rights standard is not being maintained while dealing with Internet users' rights, Sumon said, "The 'international standard' is not very clear. Each country around the globe has its own standard. We have our own standard and judging on that one must agree that freedom on the Internet has declined here."