The slogan of a “Digital Bangladesh” by the government of Bangladesh has unique implications for national development. Digital Bangladesh with Vision 2021 is has great momentum for the use of digital technology in the country.
Digital Bangladesh is an issue regarding which there is no conflict or difference of opinion between the government and the people -- all are working hand-in-hand for its realization.
Possibly the most vital creation of the modern era from which stems a bulk of the tech-based comforts, is the internet. It is the internet that, over the last two decades, has transformed isolated inhabitants of separate geographical regions into well-connected global citizens.
Barriers physically dividing people dissolve in the virtual world. The internet has enabled people around the globe to instantly share ideas and information with each other, a process made dramatically easier by the rise of social media over the last decade. Information belonging to any category imaginable is now accessible by anyone through only a few clicks, or taps if one prefers smartphones.
Bangladesh has also stepped forward in this internet journey along with other parts of the world. As reported by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), a body which was formed on January 31, 2002, under the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Act 2001, the total number of internet subscribers has reached 80.829 million at the end of January 2018.
No net neutrality laws in Bangladesh
In spite of having such a huge number of internet subscribers, we do not have net neutrality laws. There are no laws in Bangladesh regulating Internet Service Providers (ISPs) asking them to treat all data equally.
ISPs are more than welcome to pick winners and losers, or even coerce payments from others. ISPs already have broad powers to restrict access to websites under the directive of courts and governments, and have done so in the past. We as patrons have little choice but to protest loudly against such moves.
In Bangladesh, we have already experienced that the ISPs are pushing their services by making some of their services absolutely free to browse.
Net neutrality is the principle that ensures a free and open internet that encourages a spread of ideas. Net neutrality requires the ISPs to enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.
This leads to allowing a fair treatment to every website. Under this principle, governments should mandate ISPs to treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication.
For instance, under these principles, ISPs are unable to intentionally block, slow down, or charge money for specific websites and online content.
Now that Bangladesh does not have any net neutrality law, we may have days to see when our websites like bdjobs.com and bikroy.com would lose their footing
Not a free market
In our country, an example of the impact of not having net neutrality laws is that big mobile phone operators, like Grameenphone, Banglalink, and Robi, are providing free access to Facebook and Wikipedia in violation of principles of free market economy.
Moreover, almost all other telecom services give discount access to different apps and websites. These activities of providing free or discounted access to selected websites and apps not only break net neutrality but violate an age-old economic principle of the free market economy.
It allows monopolistic activities under government supervision. The biggest problem of monopoly is, it kills off all competition and doesn’t let new competition grow. Without competition, the need to provide better service finishes, and the incentive to be innovative diminishes.
Now, one might wonder why governments allow such gross and unethical practices to continue. The answer is, tech giants like Google or Facebook come under the camouflage of providing easy accessibility to provide internet service to poor people.
They say, by providing free internet, they are connecting people and helping a country to digitize faster. As per their explanation, they are helping people to connect to the internet free of cost. In reality, they are not giving access to the full internet, but just a portion of the internet, which are either their products or related to their products.
Dhaka has been ranked second in terms of having the most active Facebook users in the world according to Global Digital Statshot of Q2 report of 2017. Now that Bangladesh does not have any net neutrality law, we may have days to see when our websites like bdjobs.com and bikroy.com would lose their footing because Facebook has the option to open job listing groups and buy-sell pages -- and there is no cost to access it.
As shown in different reports, every day dozens of e-commerce pages are being opened in our country but none have credibility or sustainability. Even worse, our government gets no revenue out of them, nor are they legally responsible for them. We are having an e-commerce boom going on, but as a nation, we are failing to reap the benefit off of them.
Facebook is not the only one. Google, Wikipedia, ESPN, and many others are doing the same activities. Nothing is free in this world, and it is especially true for the field of business. There are many ways to endow people with easier access to the internet, for instance cheaper phones, free data -- the ideas can go on.
The practice prevailing in Third World countries shows that the government is intervening with online content.
It is hoped that the government and the ISPs together are able to build a Digital Bangladesh without violating the principles of a free market economy.
We need strong laws and guidelines to ensure that our citizens are not harmed. We have made significant leaps in providing access to the general public. However, it’s time to acknowledge the harm being caused due to not having net neutrality laws in Bangladesh, and act accordingly.
Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed is Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh and a research assistant at Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA).