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Right to dissent in digital Bangladesh!

Safwan Rob | December 11, 2018 00:00:00

In April this year the university quota protesters brought the capital to a standstill. This was unprecedented for several reasons, first it was truly an apolitical movement that emerged from young generation's dissatisfaction with an unjust system and lack of sincere response from the government. Second, in history of Bangladesh it is rare to find a non-political movement to pose a systemic threat, even if its short-term, to the ruling regime. More astonishingly no sooner the quota movement was subdued high-school students started their protest movement demanding safer roads and traffic condition. This episode begun after two high school students were killed in broad daylight by buses due to the drivers' reckless driving. These uprisings maybe spontaneous but the factors that contributed to such uprisings are not spontaneous at all rather they are very systemic.

ICT the accidental achilles Heel: A country is a large Complex Adaptive System (CAS) and as different regimes tries to address evolving challenges while trying to control the system, the system develops its own reactionary processes to remain independent. The problems and challenges here are fundamental as they are linked with current perception of civil-right, freedom and right to dissent. There have been wilful decisions by different actors to redefine the meaning of the terms: state, country and people. In current "politically correct" vernacular the state is an entity that represents the country and its people altogether. State is the civil government of a country and this body has the privilege to exercise executive power that is granted by the sovereign people of the country. The people makes the country, there cannot be a country without the people and a State is only legitimate as long as the people freely endow them the right to govern. In Bangladesh people have practically lost that right and as stating grievances against the current state-of-affairs in traditional platforms carries risk hence people expressed their feelings, opinions and judgement on social-media. Social-media, specially Facebook became the civil-societies space to practice their democratic rights. Democracy is broadly defined in terms of peoples' freedom and civil liberties so inadvertently Facebook became the dominant form of civil discourse and eventually the place where people started to exercise their right to dissent. This is not an isolated phenomenon, adoption and penetration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has a positive correlation with recent civil-political uprisings throughout the world. In Bangladesh's context as peoples' frustration increased with the current government concurrently government kept expanding the ICT sector, not contemplating that this infrastructural development might become a systemic threat. Objective assessment and following the central tendency would confirm the neutrality of social-media. Facebook, for example can be used by anyone for different purpose. What our young generation have to understand is that ICT-Social Media does not frame technological determinism, rather it is us the individuals in our societal, political and cultural contexts that determines the use and the outcome rather than the contrary.

Internet has become this era's instrument of pluralism. ICT and social-media's role at diffusion of protest and strategic mobilization is the unique feature of this era's political movements at macro-level and individual behaviours at micro level. At the advent of internet, the digital divide kept majority of the world population away from this digital platform as an avenue for voicing opinions, expressing grievance, sharing knowledge and most of all exercising their right to dissent. Not enough empirical study has been conducted yet to draw a direct causal relationship between social-media and recent years' political uprisings. Although real life events surrounding the overthrow of several autocratic leaders in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region confirms the catalytic role of social-media. Primarily Facebook as the medium that distributed the news, gathered sympathy, acted as digital meeting place and building society wide consensus. Cell phone based apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp, Viber were used for secure communication medium to avoid interception, tracking and masking messages.

Under an authoritarian regime it is difficult to organize and mobilize civil protest. Previously ordinary citizens did not have the resources to start a movement and even if they did manage the resources they would have attracted attention. However, ICT and social-media broke that barrier and gave ordinary citizens the ability to communicate, share and mobilize. After the Arab-Spring and similar movements across the world we also learned that in several countries authorities installed massive surveillance system to monitor netizens activity, track them and violated their right to privacy. Bangladesh government gradually learned the role of social-media in recent uprisings and admitted the difficulty in monitoring the social-media and the current cyberspace. Even though there are loyal supporters of the current regime but majority of young generation seems to follow their own national narrative and that could become a systemic threat in the future.

In many developing economies the incumbent government receives passive support from risk-averse middle-class population as they have a vested interest to protect their assets and standard of living. The elites maintain strategic relationship in order to maintain their status-quo while the poverty stricken class are too occupied to be concerned. As the political-economy becomes a plutocracy and the width of inequality increases exponentially then the dilution of the middle-class is felt by the young generation specially the demographic-dividend group. The large demographic-dividend in any country is a mixed blessing. If they are properly educated, employed and contributing to the economy then they carry the country to next economic height. Whereas if they are uneducated, unemployed and discriminated by systemic manipulation then they will dissent. The underlying psychological inertia is built by unmet materiel expectations, personal grievances and these frustrations, anger are expressed at micro-level through individual protests. Given Bangladesh's context with high mobile penetration rate within the demographic dividend generation it is a rational choice for them to dissent first in the domain they are most comfortable - the social-media and then they mobilize it on the street. Civil discourse, popular dissent has historical reverence in Bangladesh.

In 2008 the current ruling party did capitalize on the young voters by promising them Digital Bangladesh, prosecution of the War Criminals and a new country with less corruption. Lack of transparency from the ruling party surrounding the War Crimes Tribunal and using this emotional issue as a partisan tool disheartened many young supporters. Moreover, the rampant corruption and political violence eroded other achievements. It is an irony that the Digital Bangladesh initiative that current ruling regime supported so much has become its Achilles Heel. In last few years' majority of the apolitical protest with grassroots mobilization happened due to mass adoption of smart-phones with social-media apps. The young generation, middle aged and even senior citizens found the freedom to voice their opinion, share their grievance and dissent through Facebook, Twitter etc. The space in social-media became the de-facto stage of dissent and free speech. A platform with 25 million users is already posing as an existential threat to regimes capacity to steer the political narrative. The mobile social-media user base can share "non-regime sponsored narrative" and at micro level it can act as catalyst for protest and build passive support for the opposition. At macro level the collective resolution of such narrative becomes viral and creates societal support for dissent movements.

Systemic Surveillance Intervention and Citizens Right:

Since 2017 government has stepped up its internet surveillance activities and reached out to international vendors to setup monitoring equipment under project titled "Cyber Threat Detection and Response". The project would have installed Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) machines by June of 2019, however since the recent protests movements and with the National Election coming up the project has been prioritized and most probably is in operation as you are reading this article. The surveillance system has the capacity to monitor social-media, filter contents and block messages if necessary. This project supplemented by the new Digital Security Act passed in the Parliament literally restricts the freedom of speech through both technical capacity and through legal instruments. It is our civic responsibility to know how we are being governed and how these new technological surveillance affects us.

So let us imagine that a college student in Sylhet is sharing a news article on his Facebook through his smart-phone, that shared post travels through the local network (within the country) before it reaches the intended domestic and foreign recipients. As a digital data the "Facebook post" is packaged as data packets with two addresses: 1) where it's going, 2) where is it from. The data packet is routed (like a postal mail) by the home router to the local ISP (Internet Service Provider) and then it reaches the Nationwide Telecommunications Transmission Network (NTTN-PoP), here PoP (Point of Presence) is an artificial demarcation point between different communication entities. All the ISPs and NTTNs in Bangladesh are interconnected through 37 International Internet Gateway (IIG) and 3 National Internet Exchange (NIX). The data packet at this point in general circumstances would be forwarded to its recipient, however as we are now blessed with a National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre (NTMC) so they have the privilege to check the data packet. The NTMC controls this operation by installing DPI servers in all of the IIG operators' office and also in all the NIX offices. In this stage using the DPI servers the data packet is checked, opened if required so; repackaged and then sent to its original destination. In certain cases, if the packet inspection reveals something to be blocked and the origin to be located then that can happen as well. So basically, we are handing over a package to a courier through a system where that personal package can be opened before delivery and might not even be delivered.

Most recently during the protest for road safety government shutdown mobile internet to control the student protest and realized the process is not easy. However, now due to the new setup within all the IIGs and NIXs government can control the internet more efficiently. Hopefully this new surveillance setup would be used to subvert nefarious acts such as terrorism and criminal activities. As similar Digital Security Acts and agency setup in several countries have been used to target political dissenters, repressing opposition activities and subdue objective criticism towards the regime. As Bangladesh does not have any form of Digital Privacy Law hence government in practical terms does has the unwritten power to collect citizens' private information. Besides who to assure us that this discretion does not take the path of unlawful use?

After citizens overthrew the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya they found listening rooms with surveillance devices that were used to intercept, track and monitor political oppositions, citizens with ant-government stance. We have to make sure that such machines are used for lawful activities that are acceptable under broader societal and ethical impact assessment. Our civil society institutions, privacy law advocates should coordinate dialogues to draft a Digital Privacy Law for Bangladesh. Moreover, a more proactive measure can be done through International Rights organizations to assess the trade laws and ethical issues linked with importation of such surveillance machines. There are two comparative cases we can explore:

* The Surveillance Case: In 2011 European Union passed a resolution that bans export of IT systems that can be used "in connection with a violation of human rights, democratic principles or freedom of speech" (EU Regulation no. 1232/2011) This later became an export regulation titled EU General Export Authorisation No. EU005 and it banned the export of IT surveillance systems to several countries such as: India, Russia, Turkey, Argentina etc.

* Digital Security Act Case: In 2016 European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (EU 2016/679) popularly used by the acronym GDPR. This regulation aims to provide control of personal digital data to individuals.

The right to dissent is not a materiel right, if the ruling regime truly recognizes dissent to be a criminal act then there is a quantum problem. The right to dissent is not a physical phenomenon rather it is a cognitive function. As a conscious sentient being - I can oppose regime's values, ideas and beliefs. Majority of the population in Bangladesh is dissenting. So if the government truly wants to restrict dissenting then it has to ban our cognitive function! This is reminiscent to what happened to Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci in 1926, his literature and thoughts were considered a threat to Mussolini's regime and the state prosecutor stated that "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning".

As citizens and social-media users are exercising self-censorship then we have to ask: how threatened can a state feel from its citizens' thoughts? Also, isn't Digital Bangladesh a hypocritical promise in the context of limiting freedom of expression through surveillance machines and subversive laws?

Safwan Rob is Archer Fellow, Lee Kuan Yew Scholar.


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