The Internet has offered a comfort zone to those who are willing to hide their identity for expressing uncensored views. Hurling abusive words at others by sending an email, giving feedback, or posting comments online is not a problem either, to an anonymous individual.
Criminals, terrorists, extremists, and revolutionaries alike have found a platform in a laptop computer or a smartphone to carry out their respective “activities” from a safe location in Faridpur, Kandahar, or London.
Enthusiasts of information and communications technology (ICT) would, however, say how the Internet has given voice to the voiceless, breaking barriers of discriminatory polarisation in many societies. It presents an alternative to conventional media, in case genuine stories are not brought to public attention or if citizens are not allowed to speak out.
Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Dhaka as US Secretary of State in 2012, expressed her faith in an information revolution – information of corruption could not be hidden anymore, as a common citizen could easily upload any secret information by using a mere mobile phone.
She may be right, but who cares about such moral precepts? Even if strong opinions and dissents are ventilated through social media, they may not have enough impact on politics and governance when the human beings in key positions are neither democratic nor free from corrupt practices.
Former minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui might regret not trying to ban the media and thus stop Bangladeshi people from knowing about the derogatory remarks he made in New York.
On the flip side, the practice of being anonymous while disclosing certain information, often breaches the privacy of an individual or even a family, threatening the lives of teenage girls in certain cases. Falsehood is also a practice sometimes.
So, has this technological revolution provided us with more freedom, and has it empowered the masses?
ICT has, at least, strengthened the hands of the powerful people and the state. Security agencies in most countries are privileged to have acquired and ensured the use of the most sophisticated technologies, and on many occasions they are used to suppress opposing voices and sometimes even common citizens.
Extrajudicial killing is the case in point in today’s Bangladesh. Law enforcers are equipped not only with technology but also freehand (immunity) to abduct and kill almost a hundred people, after the one-sided ballot on January 5.
The increasing use of ICT since the late 90s has coincided with the rise of hawkish leaders in the likes of George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, Ariel Sharon, and Tony Blair in their foreign policy and Sheikh Hasina in her domestic policy.
Insurgencies have flared up simultaneously. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by the first wave of the Arab Spring only to see the subsequent abortion of democracy there.
Mullah Omar of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi were removed from power with foreign interventions, but civil war has become the inevitable fate for those nations. The armed revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad has made the entire region a breeding ground for militant ideologues.
All the warring parties – the establishments and the insurgents – do possess one common weapon in the form of the Internet, to pursue their respective goals – retaining hegemony or changing the world around them forever.
The state, be it the most powerful or a relatively weaker one, was about to lose its colonial era grip on the citizens because of the uprising of people through the liberation of many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
But, screening emails or tapping mobile phones by the agents of the state and a database of citizens have revitalised the coercive government machinery. Call records are used to trace and pursue an accused or arrest a politician, yet, common people are being deprived of having their phone sets and computers be protected from thieves and cheats.
Rather, in a nexus between the fortune-seeking business entities and the corrupt rulers, it’s the privacy of the people in general that is at stake more than ever before.
Therefore, ordinary Facebook or even email users somehow fail to understand that they are not anonymous, but instead are hostage to knowledge, technology, and the monetary power of those who hold and control it and maybe even hack into it.
What might have been considered the power of the people has actually turned into an “anti-people” instrument of the state. Now, neither state nor the dissidents need to issue any threats to rival parties and potential adversaries from remote places when they can do it via the Internet.
At one stage, the physical presence and acts that the cadres of Boko Haram, RSS, etc, need to show, no longer remain elusive.
The lack of privacy and the expression of refined thinking on the net may make society increasingly restless and hostile in the coming days.