Those who read my blog regularly (yes all two of you!) will know that I have a thing about Freedom of Speech. It really ruffles my feathers when that particular right is trampled with. Last few days you might have confused me with Big Bird! Boy o boy were my feathers in a mess. Some one in their infinite wisdom banned YouTube and a few other websites.
Well we think it was banned. There was no official announcement. But after you hit enter after www.youtube.com nothing happened. Some ingenious (geeky?) bloggers dug up the dirt and reported that BTCL (Bangladesh Government owned telecommunications company) had blocked the site after instructions from BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission). Before you start feeling bad about me for missing Top Gear and Sylheti serials on world’s favourite video site, you will be happy to learn that the site is back online!
So all is well and balance has returned to the force you might declare! But before we head back to trying to find the next viral craze, we should spend a couple of minutes and ask about what are the lessons learned.
Well for the first thing I get out of this incident is that despite all the talk of Digital Bangladesh, we haven’t figured out what that means. I mean wow so you figured out how to block a site! But did you? Well most believe the site was banned because of some audio files of a certain meeting between the PM and Army brass! I don’t want to get into the merits of the files, but YouTube isn’t the only place where you could get those. BTRC apparently only asked BTLC to block the sites but not private gateways like Mango or ISPs with direct VSAT hook up. Even then simple proxies could be used to by-pass the BTCL block. More over many who had listened to the files had downloaded them. So instead of trying to listen to it on YouTube it was being zipped back and forth on emails. Or come to think of it, say no one had downloaded the files nor had any idea of how to set up proxies or don’t have access to private ISPs - all you had to do is ask your khala in the US of A to go to YouTube and download the required file and email it to you. Want to ban emails now?
Only success this incident had was to point out the obvious weakness that we have in the desire to control the world wide web. And end of the day, do we even want to control it? Did we not declare Digital Bangladesh by 2021? Or are we waiting till 31st December 2020 to say we have achieved the goal?
Bangladesh’s reputation took a big hit. We joined the ranks of China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia on the list of countries who don’t trust their citizens. Ironic given that one of the founders of YouTube is after all a Bangladeshi!
We need to ask a few tough questions.
*Who was it who authorised the ban?
How far up the totem pole does one need to go to get a ban like this implemented. Does the Chairman of BTRC decide what gets on my screen? I know the man is just days into his job, but I’m sure he is aware that his job description doesn’t include this. So does it at least go up to the information secretary (who also is days into his new job courtesy the last secy who was busy writing poetry!)? Or maybe the Information Minister? (I am told he is a capable person but given that he is a first time minister he might have been a wee bit confused). Maybe the ICT Minister approved this. I don’t think the good Architect (no jokes, that is his name!) had anything to do with it. Does a decision of this magnitude need a nod from the all powerful PM? Maybe the author and horta korta of Digital Bangladesh Engineer Sajeeb Wajed Joy knew? Was this discussed at the cabinet meeting? For sure it wasn’t in Parliament. So who decided? Is some bean counter somewhere decide what we are to see or not see? Not only do we need to know, we need to ask the person our next question
Really? The audio files? There are worse (relatively speaking) things out there that you might want to ban. Should we all not know what the censorship guidelines are? I don’t want my blog to get blocked because I happened to like Alu bokhara! Seriously what is kosher and what isn’t? I believe Bangladeshi site Joubonjala was “taken over” for a while and the IP addresses of those who visited the site was recorded. (Don’t believe you when you say you have no idea what that site is about! According to Alexa that is the most popular site in the country!). But it isn’t now! (or so I’ve been told!) I remember CNBC was banned a few years back because of immoral content. Well given the current economic crisis, then Information Minister Tariqul Islam might not been off the mark. Apparently it still is. Along with FTV! Are we trying to be Morale Police? Maybe the Cultural Police? As citizens we need to know where we stand.
*Why was it reversed?
So if the ban was actually for “National security interest”, has that subsided now? What was the emergency that needed YouTube to become public enemy number one? Was it because the ban wasn’t important enough? That then leads to next question
*What safeguards do we have?
So if we are to believe that this didn’t have the approvals from the highest of levels, then how safe are we from some junior bureaucrat going postal on our civil liberties? Do we wake up one day to see Prothom Alo banned? Or New Age? Are they too big to be banned? Well then what is the latest on CSB? Is Islamic TV or Digonto safe? What about websites like Unheard Voices, Somewhereinblog or Shachol? Maybe Facebook or Google tomorrow?
Friends, I hope this incident shouldn’t become just a flash in the pan. Hope fully we will press for answers. We need it to become a catalyst to enshrine our rights pertaining to freedoms of expression.