No need to go over the top

Why the DSA’s new draft provision should worry us all


Does anyone remember when YouTube was blocked in Bangladesh? No? I don’t blame you.

Back in September 2012, the government blocked access to YouTube for internet users all over the country due to the site hosting a short film titled Innocence of Muslims, a film that set the Muslim world on fire not just because of its blatantly biased and caricaturized depiction of their prophet but mainly because of just how insipid and amateurish it was in its production.

Really, it was the thespian equivalent of a crime against humanity which, once again, proved that the only thing worse than a bad movie is a bad movie that takes itself seriously.

Long story short: The Muslim world was set ablaze by a woefully bad short film and it resulted in average folk like myself missing out on the premier of the song “Keep on Swinging” by then up-and-coming blues rock outfit Rival Sons.

Having said that, I wouldn’t blame anyone for not remembering this at all. A platform like YouTube is such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it often feels like it’s been there forever, and while disruptions are often treated as major inconveniences in the moment they ultimately become gaps in our memories that our minds eventually fill up. Not unlike how cable used to be around 20 years ago.

This is what I personally consider to be a marker of true progress. But with recent rumblings being made within our policy-making apparatus, such progress might soon come to a screeching halt.

I don’t think I need to wax any further poetics on just how ill-conceived the Digital Security Act is, and how it runs counter to the very idea of a free-thinking democracy. Far from ensuring digital security, it has only acted as a gag law by any other name.

But a more recent draft to the contentious law holds the potential to undo a lot of the progress that our nation has made under the current regime’s Digital Bangladesh manifesto. The draft targets over-the-top (OTT) platforms, which is essentially a needlessly exclusive term used to refer to any platform/service that provides users content directly through the internet.

Just think of every site which has ever hosted an audio/video clip that you’ve clicked on and chances are they will all be affected by this new provision. As would you.

According to the new draft, any content hosted by OTT platforms that “creates unrest or disorder or deteriorates or advances to deteriorate law and order situation” or “is offensive, false or threatening and insulting or humiliating to a person” will be prohibited. The provision further leaps to content that seeks to harm the “unity, integrity, defense, security, or sovereignty of Bangladesh, [and its] friendly relations with foreign states,” and of course stuff that goes against “the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the spirit of the Liberation War, the father of the nation, the national anthem or the national flag, or anything that ‘threatens the secrecy of the government’.”

The draft would require any and all such platforms (which includes social media networks, mind you) to have representatives in Bangladesh to comply with government requests when it comes to “questionable” content hosted in their platform. From there it’s just a hair away from the administration not only holding the platform holder into account (with exorbitant fines and even jail time) but also pressuring them into yielding data on users who have accessed such content on their platform.

If you’re an avid fan of Netflix’s Patriot Act (we hardly knew ye) as I am, this might remind you of that one episode where they exposed the role of the Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in the killing of WaPo journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Netflix ultimately making it unavailable in Saudi Arabia shortly after it debuted.

It’s never a good sign when Saudi Arabia enters the conversation.

The DSA is already a horrendous piece of legislation that is completely out of line when it comes to retaining citizens’ rights, but this new provision now threatens to undo a lot of the progress our nation has made when it comes to improving our digital infrastructure and indeed foreign investment in Bangladesh.

With constraints and legal ramifications of such magnitude, it begs us to ask why any tech company would ever want to consider Bangladesh as a market. Usage of platforms such as Netflix, despite the high barrier to entry, has exploded in our country over the past year or so, while Facebook is practically ingrained into our social fabric (for better or worse), and these are all companies that are registered to pay taxes in our country (Google paid Tk2.3 crore in VAT last year).

With the threat of high fines, and even jail time, what incentive is there for these companies to stick around in Bangladesh?

The sadder truth is that we are also witnessing the rise of homegrown OTT platforms that are trying to promote locally-made shows and films which stand to lose the most -- the ramifications that this new provision holds for aspiring new storytellers on these platforms would just end up perpetuating Bangladesh’s status quo as a cultural wasteland. But that’s a different conversation altogether.

Every country has the right to protect its interests; but when the measures of protection start to encroach into the personal freedoms of citizens is when matters go over the top.

Rubaiyat Kabir is Joint Editor, Op-Ed and Editorial, Dhaka Tribune.