Laughing in the Face of an Internet Shutdown In Bangladesh

Exam time has arrived in Bangladesh. Photo via pxhere (CC0).

Now is the season of school final exams in Bangladesh and the government is trying hard to cope with the issue of exam questions leaking online.

Leaking exam questions have become a regular phenomenon in public examinations like Junior School Certificate (JSC), Senior School Certificate (SSC) and Higher Secondary School Certificate (HSC), medical college and university admission tests, and state-owned bank recruitment exams over the last several years in Bangladesh.

Mostly using Facebook and WhatsApp, people sell exam questions ahead of the nationwide examinations. A few hours before the exam, the questions are often given away for free. The offenders in most of these cases have not been identified. These leaks have cast a shadow over the quality of exams and the process of assessing students.

In January, the Education Minister hinted that Facebook would be shut down during the exams to prevent these leaks.

On February 11, 2018, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission instructed all internet service providers in Bangladesh to shut off mobile internet and reduce broadband speeds to 25 kbps from 8:00am-10:30am on exam days throughout the remainder of February.

But on February 12, 2018 morning, within an hour from the start of the internet shutdown, the government backtracked and ordered ISPs to ensure uninterrupted internet service. It took some hours for the ISPs to implement the new order and things were normal again. The authorities have instead imposed a mobile phone ban near the exam halls.

Netizens criticized the move, using sarcasm and satire to express their dissatisfaction and protest the “rash and whimsical” decision.

Blogger Sabhanaz Rashid Diya tweeted:

Blogger and activist Imran H Sarkar thinks this seems like chopping your head off to cure the malady.

ইন্টারনেটের হাত-পা আছে, মাথা আছে। ইন্টারনেট দুর্নীতি করে। ইন্টারনেট প্রশ্নও ফাঁস করতে পারে! তাই বাংলাদেশে প্রশ্নফাঁস বন্ধ করতে ইন্টারনেট (প্রায়) বন্ধ রাখার সিদ্ধান্ত নেওয়া হয়েছে।
যারা এমন সিদ্ধান্ত নিতে পারেন তারা মাথা ব্যাথা হলে নিজেদের মাথাও কি কেটে ফেলবেন?

The internet has limbs and a head. The internet is corrupt. It can leak exam questions. So the internet was ordered shut down, as a measure to stop leaking exam questions. Those who can make such decisions – would they chop off their heads just because they had a headache?

Bangladesh is a riverine country. Each year the country faces floods which cause heavy damages. Stand-up comedian Naveed Mahbub wrote:

বর্ষাকালে বন্যা প্রতিরোধে ইন্টারনেট বন্ধ রাখা যেতে পারে…

We can shut down internet during rainy season to prevent flood…

Referencing recent news about defaulters on bank loans, Islam Raz wrote:

ঋণখেলাপী বন্ধের জন্য টাকামন্ত্রীর কাছ থেকে ব্যাংক বন্ধের নির্দেশনা আশা করছি।

I am expecting the Finance minister would instruct banks to close down in order to stop loan defaulters.

Hasnat Jamil opined that cancelling the exam would be the best solution:

প্রশ্ন ফাঁস ঠেকাতে ইন্টারনেট বন্ধ না করে,পরীক্ষা নেয়া বন্ধ করে দেয়া উচিৎ।
তাহলে আর প্রশ্ন ফাঁস নিয়ে দুশ্চিন্তা করতে হবেনা।

To stop the leaks, better to cancel the exam rather than shutting the internet down. Then you won't have to worry about leaks anymore.

Bad for the economy

This is not the first time Bangladeshis have faced an internet shutdown. In 2015 Bangladesh shut down the internet on security grounds and then blocked Facebook and a number of chat apps for 22 days. In addition to taking away peoples’ abilities to communicate and access important information online, these shutdowns had detrimental effects on the country's economy.

In the current scenario, many have spoken out about the fact that shutting down Internet — even for just two and a half hours for one day — has negative consequences for trade and commerce.

IT expert Fahim Masrur termed the decision as “foolish” and “suicidal” on his Facebook page:

ব্যবসা-বাণিজ্য আর অর্থনীতির উপর এটির বিরাট প্রতিক্রিয়া পড়তে বাধ্যI
১/ দেশে কয়েকশত আইটি আউটসোর্সিং প্রতিষ্ঠান কাজ করছে যাদের বিদেশে তাদের ক্লায়েন্টদের সাথে ২৪ ঘন্টা যোগাযোগ রাখতে হয়I এক ঘন্টা সময় বিচ্ছিন্ন থাকলেই ব্যবসা চলে যাবার সম্ভবনা! হাজার হাজার ফ্রিল্যান্সার দেশে কাজ করছে যাদের দরকার ২৪ ঘন্টা ইন্টারনেট কানেকশানI প্রতিদিন ২-৩ ঘন্টা ইন্টারনেট না থাকা মানে নিশ্চিত ভাবে ক্লায়েন্ট হারানো!
২/ দেশের সবচেয়ে বড় রপ্তানি খাত গার্মেন্ট শিল্প এখন ব্যাপকভাবে ইন্টারনেটের উপর নির্ভরশীল I প্রতি মুহূর্ত বায়ারদের সাথে যোগাযোগ রাখতে হয় I অনলাইনে বিডিং করতে হয়I সাপ্লায়ারদের কাছে প্রতিনিয়ত ইমেইল পাঠাতে হয়I সকাল বেলা এই যোগাযোগের ‘পিক টাইম'I ইন্টারনেট কিছু সময়ের জন্য না থাকা মানে ব্যবসার বিশাল ক্ষতি হওয়া I
৩/ বর্তমানে প্রতিদিন সকাল বেলা হাজার হাজার তরুণ Uber , pathao, Muv রাইড শেয়ারিং এপ ব্যবহার করে – কেউ রাইড নিতে, কেউ দিতে I সকাল বেলা (৮ টা থেকে ১০ টা) রাইড শেয়ারিং-এর পিক টাইম (দিনের অর্ধেক ইনকাম আসে এই সময় থেকে) I বিশাল ক্ষতির মুখে পড়বে এর সবাই I

This has a huge consequence for trade, commerce and the economy of the country:
1) Several hundred IT outsourcing companies are working in this country who have to maintain 24 hour communication with the clients across the world. Even a one-hour shutdown can cost a company to lose their business to competitors. There are hundreds of thousands of freelancers working in the country through internet. If they are deprived of Internet 2-3 hours each day they will lose their earnings and even clients.
2) The largest export earning sector is the ready-made garments sector which is dependent on Internet for constant communication with the buyers. They have to bid online and keep a constant communication with the supply chain. If in the morning, during their peak time of business, communication is cut-off they will lose millions of dollars.
3) Many people in this country are increasing using ride sharing (Uber, Pathao, Muv) and other e-commerce apps. The ride-sharing peak hours are in the morning when people go to the office. They will lose big sums of earnings everyday.

A commenter on Masrur's post echoed his comments with a real life example:

আজ রাত ১০ টার সময় নেট চলে যাওয়াতে আমার ২৬৫ ডলার লস। এক ক্লায়েন্টের সাথে ২৬৫ ডলারের একটা কাজ নিয়ে কথা বলছিলাম। হুট করে নেট চলে গেছে। পরে নেট আসার পর দেখি ক্লায়েন্ট অন্য একজনকে হায়ার করে ফেলেছে

The [February 12] internet shutdown has caused me a loss of US $265. I was bidding for a work contract for that amount with a client when the Internet went out. I contacted the client when Internet resumed and found that he had hired another person in the meantime.

Where is the solution?

According to a Transparency International of Bangladesh report, as many as 63 sets of questions for different public exams were leaked from 2012 to 2015. These question papers are being snapped by mobile phone cameras anywhere from printing press to the exam hall and are being shared instantly on various social media tools including Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat and regular email.

Some members of civil society have commented that methods like open book exams could be a different way to re-establish the quality and authority of state exams.

There have been comments that there are corrupt people within the Education Ministry and those who deal with the matter of question paper printing, safekeeping and distributing to the examination centres. Some have even called on the Education Minister to resign.

The police have on several occasions nabbed different offenders over the years. Earlier this month, the Education Ministry had announced a bounty of BDT 500,000 (US $6000) for information on question paper leak, to prevent such occurrence.

For now, with demand for exam questions increasing, the leaks continue. How the government will choose to combat the problem, short of an internet shutdown, remains to be seen.

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