Recent events of terrorism in the country, which strongly pointed towards the use of certain online platforms as a major communication tool for the extremists, have stimulated the need for relevant policy and action to prevent such iniquitous uses of internet. The question is: How much of a feasible and effective scheme can be formulated to counter this?
Internet censorship (government-imposed or through legal channels) is quite a common trend all over the globe. Its purpose can be multi-faceted: National security, tackling social and cultural issues, piracy prevention, blocking of generally objectionable content, etc. Let us consider a few examples.
In October 2015, the Indian government instructed local ISPs to block at least 240 websites which were said to be offering pirated contents. Two months ago, the Singapore government announced that, to strengthen national security, public servants in Singapore will be blocked from accessing the internet on work computers from May 2017.
In November 2015, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Viber were temporarily blocked in Bangladesh on security grounds. From September 2012 to May 2013, YouTube was blocked in Bangladesh following the release of a controversial and religiously offensive movie.
From a technical perspective, the blocking scheme for online content can be deployed in three different domains. The first one is at the user end, which means internet users themselves will enable some content blocking rules in their devices. This is obviously not a considerable option for mass level blocking, as it solely depends on the user’s own choices.
The second domain for online content blocks is the ISP, which so far has been the most commonly used mechanism in Bangladesh. However, its accuracy and effectiveness is questionable. Due to technological limitations, there is hardly any fool-proof content blocking policy that a network operator can deploy.
Increased internet use for terror purposes can provide a corresponding increase in the availability of electronic data which can be analysed for counter-terrorism, provided that sophisticated tools are available
Another side-effect is that attempts to block one particular piece of content through a generalised scheme may cause service disruption of other contents. For example, during the YouTube block in Bangladesh, users faced frequent problems in accessing other Google services, as a generic blocking policy was deployed by most ISPs. Network operators have been continuously working to enhance such techniques. In the South Asia Network Operators Group conference that took place in Mumbai last month, this issue came up as a major topic of discussion.
The third domain in blocking content is the source where it actually resides (like Facebook, YouTube). This is the most effective option, as blocking from the source ensures maximum accuracy. Dominant entities (Google, Microsoft, Facebook) have an established framework in this regard, consisting of relevant policy, process, and regular publication of reports.
Facebook removes content, disables accounts, and co-operates with law enforcement authorities of any country only when they believe that their standards have been violated.
Such violation includes certain risk elements such as direct threats, self-injury, dangerous organisations, bullying and harassment, attacks on public figures, criminal activity, sexual violence and exploitation, and regulated goods.
For example, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Facebook received a request from French law enforcement to remove several photos depicting the remains of several victims.
The photos were alleged to violate French laws related to protecting human dignity. However, Facebook determined that the photos did not violate its community standards, as it was shared to denounce the attack or to show compassion for victims. So, it restricted access to such photos in France only, but not in other countries.
In December 2015, after a meeting in Dhaka between Facebook officials and three Bangladesh government officials, the home minister said that Facebook had agreed to assist the government on security issues.
In its Government Request Report for the period July 2015-December 2015, Facebook confirmed that it had provided information to the Bangladesh government on requests for the first time.
However, censorship is only one factor, as there are several other aspects in tackling terrorism on the internet. Increased internet use for terror purposes can provide a corresponding increase in the availability of electronic data, which can be analysed for counter-terrorism, provided that sufficiently sophisticated tools are available with the law enforcement, intelligence, and other relevant authorities.
The Bangladesh government is currently formulating a Digital Security Act (a draft version of which got approved in the cabinet on August 23). So, it is high time to devise some concrete policies and framework regarding internet censorship, which should include at least the following points.
Defined communication channels (like hotline, e-mail, direct reporting) through which any citizen can inform about potentially dangerous content. Following the terrorist attacks on July, Dhaka Metropolitan Police appealed to city-dwellers to report any suspicious terror activity found over the internet.
A solid nation-wide communication channel is preferable in this regard (a common practice in many other countries), which will maintain confidentiality of information, anonymity of the informer, and, rather than addressing any sort of complaint made against anything, it should deal with only those which can pose a threat to national security.
Continuous collaboration (preferably through some mutual agreement) with the most influential online entities (global and local) to avail relevant support on a regular basis.
Also, combined internal efforts (through regulatory bodies, law enforcement authorities, ISPs, and other related organisations) to strengthen technical capabilities regarding monitoring, analysing, and blocking of online content.
The underlying principle gets reflected by a comment made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in a UN whitepaper titled “The use of the internet for terrorist purposes”: “The Internet is a prime example of how terrorists can behave in a truly transnational way; in response, states need to think and function in an equally transnational manner.”
Azfar Adib is Lead Engineer, Grameenphone Ltd, and a reviewer of internet-related trends and their impact.