The honourable State Minister for Posts and Telecommunication Tarana Halim authored a rather interesting op-ed in a leading Bangladeshi daily defending her government’s recent decision to shut down several social networking platforms, including Facebook.
This particular move by the government is very significant, given that Facebook is a crucial media for the folks engaged in critical thinking, analysis, and free conversation on Bangladeshi affairs.
If one were to do some analysis on the content of the op-ed, it will be evident that a key theme of the write-up was to somehow convey that shutting down Facebook is tantamount to saving lives. Therefore, a logical but implied deduction of this argument is that Facebook actually kills people. The title of Tarana’s piece was: “Sorry for trying to save lives,” and the words “saving lives” were sporadically scattered throughout the article.
Tarana Halim is indeed one of the brightest members of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet, with a very clean image. Having spent a significant part of her life in the mainstream media, one would hope she would get the importance of a free media in a modern democracy. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t do any favour to such a notion; in fact, it suggests the opposite.
The first half of the op-ed is spent referring to deadly incidents across the globe to somehow suggest that shutting down Facebook either could have contained them, or outright prevented them.
At one point, the author muses whether French authorities could have prevented the recent heinous terrorist attack by simply shutting down social networks. Tarana writes: “So many people could have been saved (in France) if social networking sites had been temporarily shut down before the tragedy struck.”
Why and how could France shut down social media all of a sudden even before the tragedy struck is a very curious question. However, the fact that France didn’t shut down any social media, even after declaring a state of emergency for three months, should be reason enough to understand that such an idea didn’t cross the French authority’s mind at any time.
A social networking site like Facebook provides two types of communication channels. One is to act as an open, interactive discussion and distribution of information platform, and the other is to provide private, secure, encrypted communication between individuals and groups.
Tarana is right in assuming that both of these two services provided by Facebook can be misused by miscreants to create anarchy in the country, which may indeed lead to deaths of people. However, what she got wrong is the futility of trying to clamp down on such misuse by outright banning social media.
There is no shortage of encrypted and secured private messaging services in the web for miscreants to use for secret communication. Furthermore, circumventing government bans on social media requires only rudimentary knowledge of internet usage.
A big chunk of Bangladeshi Facebook users are already back online. Therefore, if anything, a social media ban only prevents the docile and incompetent from accessing Facebook, not those that are tactical and on a mission.
And for the open discussions and distribution capabilities of Facebook, if anything, the government should keep those open, because this gives them a very clear, traceable, and, if necessary, punishable access to subversive activities of miscreants. One must not forget that open Facebook posts take the written format, and hence, are pretty good as court evidence. This is the exact reason why Western governments do not block subversive websites and traffic; they simply monitor who is accessing problematic materials online. That is the smart thing to do.
Tarana makes the claim that several other countries have banned the Internet. She claimed that the patriotic people of those countries have not complained. She wriites: “The citizens of those countries have accepted the shutdown for greater interests. They have made no objections of any kind.” For the readers, here is the list of countries that Tarana is probably alluding to; simply read them, and draw your own conclusions: North Korea, Cuba, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, China, Tunisia, Vietnam. Need I go on? Are these the standard bearers of what we want under Digital Bangladesh?
The closing down of social media may actually have dangerous monetary and reputational consequences for Bangladesh’s nascent IT service sector. One may not forget that countries with the harshest internet censorship, filtering, and suspension are the least developed in the IT service sector and IT business.
As to when the government is thinking about removing the Facebook ban, Tarana alludes that as soon as the green light is provided by the higher-ups, the ban will be gone. In another speech, Tarana was quoted saying that the ban will stay in place until every single citizen of the country is safe. Such sweeping assertions, with such vague and impossible targets may actually mean that such a ban may stay in place for long, perhaps very long.
In sum, the op-ed was a regrettable affair, where one of Bangladesh’s premier and brightest media personalities was making a case for shutting down the most important media of this age – i.e. social media. It seems to me that the lack of persuasiveness of the write-up was probably due to the fact that the author was scratching her head, struggling to come up with appropriate defense of something that is not really defensible.