It’s been a bad few weeks for the people of Bangladesh, made worse by the ham-handed internet censorship of its government. Their decision to block some online messaging services was a disproportionate and unnecessary attempt to silence all speech on a slapdash list of messenger applications.
Bangladesh society has recently been shaken by the execution in November of opposition leaders Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (accused and domestically convicted of war crimes). It also has been wrestling with a high profile attack on an Italian priest, and an attack on a Shia mosque (both claimed by ISIS supporters).
In the middle of these events, the Bangladesh government handed down an edict that attempted to block users in Bangladesh from accessing Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber. This is the second time this year that Bangladesh has tried to prevent its citizens from connecting over these kinds of internet services. Apparently practice doesn’t make perfect: the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission overshot, shutting down the entire country’s internet for approximately 75 minutes.
The government justified this mass censorship by claiming it was needed to stop “criminals.” Other generic language used last week—“in the interest of national security,” and “once the situation changes”—highlights just how little government transparency the people of Bangladesh have during this tense time.
This blundering government reaction comes against the backdrop of official and unofficial suppression of online speech. It’s been two years since an extremist group delivered to the government a list of 84 bloggers it accused of publishing secular or atheist opinions online. Eleven people on the list have been killed. Human rights groups have criticized the government’s failure to act on the continuing threats and attacks on online writers and publishers.
The recent attempt at a blackout resulted in an uneven application across ISPs. It has also sparked a flood of interest in censorship-circumvention technologies that will enable Bangladeshis to continue checking in on each other’s safety, trading information, and discussing the recent political actions their country’s government is taking on their behalf.
The government claimed that “no untoward or subversive activities” occurred after the executions because of this shutdown, but—as we witnessed in the tragic mosque attack four days into the ban—chat service bans are ineffective at preventing security threats. Any effect the ban has will be felt most harshly by those in Bangladesh who merely want to know what is happening in their country; whether their friends, families and colleagues are safe; and what exactly their government thinks it is accomplishing by taking down such vital communication services.