The Bangladesh Daily Star reported on August 4, 2016 that Bangladesh's Telecommunication Regulatory Commission had ordered the country's International Internet Gateway operators to block access to 35 news websites.
No further details about the blocking have emerged thus far, but the list of sites is long and includes some that represent critical positions within the country's current political climate. A full list of the domains ordered blocked, as reported by the Daily Star, appears below.
Websites ordered blocked:
This comes on the heels of an Internet shutdown that took place early in the morning on August 2, when Internet access in a commercial area of Dhaka was cut off for 3.5 hours as part of a government-enforced “drill” to test the capabilities of telecommunications agencies in the country. The national telecommunications agency indicated that it was part of a series of test shutdowns that will soon take place across the country.
The “Internet shutdown drill” was announced on August 1 and presented as a security measure. This comes following the brutal attack in early July at the Holey Artisan Bakery, where 20 hostages were murdered as part of a terrorist attack that came at a time when violence is increasing in the country.
In addition to the Internet, other services were also cut. Mobile phone operators reportedly tested their ability to shut down voice calls and ISPs were also asked to block certain web pages. It is unclear whether these are the same sites that were ordered blocked on August 4.
The Chairman of the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC), Shahjahan Mahmood, clarified on August 3 that this exercise was the first in a series of temporary Internet shutdowns, saying “As part of the ongoing exercise, all sorts of Internet connections will be suspended for a short period anytime at any place in the country,”
Ahsan Habib Khan, vice-chairman of BTRC added that these future blackouts are likely to take place during the night, and on holidays.
Citizens are struggling to see how these shutdowns might have a positive impact on public safety, but the pitfalls of this strategy seem self-evident. Bangladeshi citizens expressed dismay and anger on social media, with one Facebook user writing:
And wtf is this?? Without any prior notice or with such a short notice?? Do they have any idea how people work and how it may affect their work?? Imagine the situation – an area suddenly went offline around the most critical time and most of the people don't even know about it and you can't even use your cell phone data to communicate with someone to inform about the situation cause your entire area is f**ed up!
On Twitter, digital rights group Access Now called these actions “misguided”, as part of their global campaign against internet shutdowns, #KeepItOn.
— Access Now (@accessnow) August 1, 2016
This is not the first time networks have been deliberately shut down in Bangladesh. In November 2015, the Bangladeshi government blocked social media sites including Facebook, Viber and Whatsapp for almost four weeks.
On the first day of that ban, Internet access was cut to the entire country for roughly 75 minutes. Immediately afterwards, Mahmood said it had been a mistake and the shutdown was the result of a “misunderstanding.”
This new push to curtail citizens’ Internet access is extremely worrying, particularly in Bangladesh where freedom of expression is increasingly under threat, both online and in everyday life.
In 2011, the United Nations declared Internet access to be a fundamental human right. Just four weeks ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday passed a nonbinding resolution condemning countries that prevent or disrupt access to the internet.
Despite these repeated violations of digital rights, the government’s claims of moving towards a “Digital Bangladesh” continue.