The Bangladesh government plans to require its citizens to obtain licenses to use social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, and has already installed software giving it the ability to remove online content, Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar told BenarNews.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has already faced criticism over a vaguely-worded Digital Security Law introduced in 2018. In December 2018, during the general election, the country’s telecoms regulator shut down dozens of online news portals for several hours.
“We are going to start educating the public right away,” Jabbar said of the new policies. “In fact, the way we want to work here, social media users need to have a license.”
Jabbar said that a social media license could be easily obtained “by downloading a software,” in an interview with BenarNews late last week.
“We have to work a little harder to motivate the public to collect their own licenses,” he acknowledged, saying this could take some time. But “the equipment has been installed.”
Hasina’s government has received praise worldwide for sheltering about 1.2 million Rohingya refugees who fled bouts of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, including the bloody counter-offensive launched by Naypyidaw’s security forces two years ago.
Her government took tough measures to contain violence in refugee camps in September, ordering telecoms companies to restrict internet access in the sprawling camps, in a move that threatened to isolate the Rohingya from their families in Myanmar and the outside world.
Jabbar did not elaborate on what technology his office had installed, but said Dhaka could control the content published on social media sites.
Offensive comments posted abroad would not be seen in Bangladesh, he said.
“In the future, we can block any content on social media. If I need to delete a comment from your account, I can delete it as well. However, they can be seen from outside Bangladesh,” he said.
A Facebook spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a BenarNews email seeking comment.
‘The Great Firewall’
Analysts and media activists slammed Jabbar’s statements and expressed concerns that the government could misuse technology to muzzle journalists and the public.
“This is a very ambitious program of the government,” Ali A. Razi, a mass communication and journalism professor at Chittagong University, told BenarNews. “It will limit the people’s rights to express [their opinions].”
Political analyst Nirjhar Mojumder decried the measures as “like the Great Firewall of China.”
“Misuse is likely, if the government implements it before publishing a clear policy over its use,” he said. “It can legitimately be used only to check militancy, transnational organized crimes and child pornography. It will be counterproductive, if used for any other purpose.”
Jabbar underscored that the technology only allows control of content, not social media sites themselves. The government respects “the people’s rights to express themselves, and will continue to do so,” he said.
But he said the government would act against negative comments about the 1971 independence war or about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first leader, who was assassinated in 1975, and is considered the father of the country.
Jabbar suggested that the government should also consider amending the nation’s Digital Security Act to make it tougher.
The law, which was passed in the parliament in 2018, contains vague provisions that could be used to intimidate and imprison journalists and social media users, silence dissent and carry out invasive forms of surveillance, according to Amnesty International.
“The law is weak and we have to make it tougher a bit,” Jabbar said. “Now we need to change it in some parts to protect the country's interests and citizens’ security.”