Internet Shutdowns in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. However, since gaining its independence 50 years ago, the country has experienced declining democratic protections, including attacks on civil society and state repression of political opposition. The government also frequently has targeted critical media organizations, and the country has one of the lowest rankings in the Committee to Protect Journalism’s World Press Freedom Index.
Since 2009, the Bangladeshi government has carried out internet shutdowns nearly every year. At least seventeen shutdowns have occurred since 2012, including mobile internet speed throttling, targeted blocking of popular social media sites and communication apps, and complete network blackouts. Though the government frequently invokes technical problems, security reasons, and combatting disinformation as explanations for these disruptions, most internet shutdowns have occurred during major political flashpoints, including political protests and elections. Their timing indicates shutdowns represent state efforts to control political information flows rather than technical issues or good faith efforts to stop disinformation.
These shutdowns have significant economic and social costs. The watchdog organization Netblocks estimates that a day-long internet shutdown costs Bangladesh more than US $78 million. The extensive disruptions to work and to people’s ability to make an income most significantly impact the country’s marginalized communities. However, the costs of internet shutdowns are also political. Curtailing internet access blocks avenues for participation in civic discourse and political processes; undermines journalists’ ability to report on public interest news stories; and thwarts activists’ organizing, advocacy, and outreach to their constituencies.
Shutdowns also undermine the government’s efforts to position the country as an emerging digital nation. With a 31.5% internet penetration rate as of 2022, the government actively promotes a “Digital Bangladesh” agenda to expand internet access, even as it frequently disrupts that access. Laws like the Bangladesh Telecommunications Act of 2002 give the state significant latitude to do so with limited or vague justification. Newer laws, like the Digital Security Act, which criminalizes political criticism as “negative propaganda” punishable by up to fourteen years in prison, further restrict Bangladeshi digital civic spaces.
Shutdowns also impact civil society, despite its familiarity with circumvention tools like VPNs. Few civil society organizations have the capacity to respond to shutdowns or to engage in advocacy to prevent them in the future. Bangladesh lacks a robust digital rights community to conduct network measurement and research documenting the impact of internet shutdowns that can inform such advocacy.
Digitally Right’s Key Approach: Building anti-shutdown capacity and advocacy through satire
Digitally Right is a Bangladeshi civil society organization that advocates for freedom of expression, safe online information access, and independent media. The organization conducts digital media research, creates media literacy resources, engages in strategic advocacy, and conducts specialized trainings to help civil society, the private sector, and the public safely navigate digital spaces. The nonprofit’s areas of research and advocacy include investigative journalism, media transformation, digital rights, digital security, and disinformation.
Digitally Right’s anti-shutdown campaign built on a needs assessment survey of Bangladeshi civil society knowledge and capacity gaps related to preparing for and responding to internet shutdowns. The survey revealed frequent experiences of shutdowns and a civil society unprepared for responding to them.
In Bangladesh, internet shutdowns have “never been discussed within civil society and never been reported on the media,” says Miraj Chowdhury, Managing Director of Digitally Right. The survey “not only created the first knowledge base on internet shutdowns in Bangladesh,” he argues, but also inspired civil society conversations on the topic. He considers it a key best practice for developing anti-shutdown advocacy.
The organization focused on strengthening civil society’s research on shutdowns and advocacy capacity. Through a partnership with the NGO Transparency International Bangladesh (BIP), it developed network measurement and circumvention trainings for a growing network of stakeholders—including journalists, activists, and civil society—concerned about digital rights. Among their achievements, the workshops trained several journalists to document and report on internet shutdowns in Bangladesh, who also formed lasting relationships with Digitally Right.
The trainings built the foundation for a wide, sustainable anti-shutdown network of Bangladeshi civil society, activists, and journalists. They also contributed to policy advocacy: BIP made recommendations to the country’s election commission about preserving internet access in the run-up to elections.
“This is the first time that a Bangladesh civil society organization proposed to the election commission that you cannot stop the internet” during elections, says Chowdhury. Shortly afterward, another civil society organization made similar recommendations. These interventions received media attention, which resonated with government officials.
Chowdhury recounts: “The chief election commissioner made a public statement that he expects that the governmental authorities will not stop or shut down the internet during the upcoming 2024 national election. We call this an impact.”
To raise public awareness about shutdowns, Digitally Right partnered with Earki, a highly popular Bangladeshi satirical collective. Earki developed an internet rights campaign called Cabledown, a series of live installations throughout Dhaka, the capital city. These included satirical posters emphasizing the importance of digital rights that invoked popular Bangladeshi proverbs and rhymes. “Young people love memes and satire. If we can speak with their own language then we can reach them,” say Fowzia Afroze and Simu Naser, the Earki team behind the campaign. The campaign galvanized public discussions about internet shutdowns.
Digitally Right’s three-pronged approach—a knowledge and capacity survey, network measurement and preparedness trainings, and a public awareness campaign—significantly advanced anti-shutdown advocacy within Bangladesh. One of its key impacts is the emergence of a self-sustaining network of committed civil society organizations.
“Key organizations are now active and made it a part of their internal advocacy plan that they will talk about internet shutdowns. People are talking about it. Journalists are reporting on this. Now we are seeing more reporting on internet shutdowns than before,” states Chowdhury.
Chowdhury acknowledges that without additional resources existing activities like ongoing network measurement testing will likely become infrequent. He considers developing local expertise a priority. “If I had more money, to keep things sustained I’d create a pool of technologists,” says Chowdhury. A key future challenge is, he argues, “How do we cultivate data literacy so that we can understand this technical data? We need certain actors who can initiate a dialogue with telecom companies, ISPs, and the government.”
Chowdhury remains optimistic: “We are very committed around this. We are ready for the next step. For us, it will be more technological capabilities. But I would say this is one of the most meaningful projects that we did.”
International actors have taken notice. Google Jigsaw and Cloudflare represent just two that have reached out to the organization about its work on shutdowns. Digitally Right also maintains a regular partnership with the NGO Access Now, which was forged during the trainings, and plans to keep expanding its network.