Authors: Miraj Chowdhury & Laura Schwartz-Henderson
Users in Bangladesh have experienced internet shutdowns in various forms almost every year since 2009. Past shutdowns have included wholesale network blackouts, blocking of communication apps and social media sites, and deliberate slowing (“throttling”) of mobile internet speeds. While the government has blamed technical problems or justified such incidents by citing security reasons or a need to combat disinformation, most incidents occurred during protests, elections, and political events, indicating that shutdowns are often deployed to control information for political purposes.
“Shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that shields human rights abuses from public scrutiny,” the #KeepitOn coalition wrote recently in a public letter to the Bangladesh government. “Disinformation and hate speech online are threats to the democracy, peace, and stability of many countries including Bangladesh. However, no evidence suggests that using broad and disproportionate measures like shutdowns and throttling will stop the spread of disinformation and propaganda online,” the coalition added.
It is extremely difficult to estimate the cost and negative impact of an internet shutdown. One day of an internet shutdown is estimated to cost Bangladesh more than US $78 million. In addition to the wide-reaching impact on the country’s economy, marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted, depriving already vulnerable people of income, safe and secure communications, and opportunities to participate in civic discourse and political processes. Internet shutdowns also make it difficult for journalists and activists, which already face significant challenges in the country, to gather and share factual and well-sourced information.
Bangladesh’s government actively promotes a “Digital Bangladesh” agenda “to benefit all so as to avoid the perils of the digital divide,” according to its Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh. One of the intended outcomes of this strategy is that “Citizens of the country irrespective of economic condition, education, race, ethnicity, profession, gender are connected through a network of mobile communications, broadband Internet, audio-visual media for exchanging information and accessing services.” Shutdowns not only contradict this national vision but also put the country at reputational risk for violating human rights as defined by international law and United Nations resolutions.
“We need serious research on shutdowns and their impact -- more, and in-depth in Bangladesh”
- Workshop Participant
Civil society plays a critical role, not only to push for transparency and accountability in decision-making about network disruptions, but also to make citizens and key groups aware of shutdowns and provide resources so they can prepare and respond. However, thus far, there have been few advocacy efforts focused on shutdowns, mainly due to a lack of knowledge and technical skills to advocate for digital rights and the absence of strong organizations in this sphere. The advocacy that does take place is often limited to reactive responses during shutdowns rather than proactive advocacy to prevent and prepare for such incidents.
Bangladesh is undergoing a digital transformation and there is a strong political will to foster digital growth. Internet shutdowns undermine the very idea of Digital Bangladesh, but its social, economic, and political consequences are not well-discussed, well-researched, nor debated within the country. A better understanding of the impact of internet shutdowns and the challenges civil society faces is much needed to engage in effective advocacy on such a contentious issue.
This is the context in which we conducted an advocacy needs assessment to better understand the needs of Bangladeshi civil society when it comes to preparing for internet shutdowns and engaging in longer-term advocacy and coalition-building to prevent future shutdowns and censorship. This assessment is part of a series of reports focusing on civil society needs in four distinct countries as it relates to preparing for and preventing internet shutdowns. These assessments sought to better understand the nuanced ways in which internet shutdowns occur in different countries, including:
- Patterns and trends in technical mechanisms used in specific places to shut down the internet;
- Political and social triggering events and government for shutting down the internet;
- Perceptions of the wider impact of shutdowns on economies and societies;
- Differential impacts that shutdowns have on specific vulnerable groups and marginalized populations;
- Laws and regulations that contribute to an enabling environment for internet shutdowns and inhibit advocacy related to censorship and internet shutdowns;
- Perceptions about future risk of internet shutdowns; and
- Perceptions about civil society preparedness and advocacy capacity in areas such as awareness-raising and stakeholder engagement, documentation of impact and network measurement, circumvention strategies and protection of vulnerable communities, and legal capacity to engage in litigation.
Through a survey of civil society stakeholders as well as co-design workshops, this report finds that stakeholders in Bangladesh fear future shutdowns and believe they are likely to continue in the country. They report that shutdowns not only impact the digital economy significantly but also often exacerbate the issues that they are purportedly attempting to control. For example, governments often cite communal violence and disinformation as key rationales for blocking internet services. However, participants in this research indicate that, in their experience, internet shutdowns create an environment in which it is easier for rumors to spread and lead to isolation, fear, and instability.
This research is meant to not only inform global audiences about specific shutdown threats and civil society perceptions in these countries, but also to serve as a starting point to collaboratively develop national advocacy strategies and engage in deliberate outreach, training, and resource development to target identified challenges and needs in each country. The recommendations included at the end of the report are based on collective reflections around these findings and determinations of the strategic priorities by and for Bangladeshi civil society. These recommendations are currently being implemented through Internews’ OPTIMA project, and we encourage interested parties to contact the authors to participate in coalition activities and to support this work.