Netizen Report: Bangladesh Bans Facebook and Chat Apps on ‘Security Grounds’

Demonstrators call for capital punishment for war criminals in Bangladesh, 2013. Photo by Mehdi Hasan Khan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Demonstrators call for capital punishment for war criminals in Bangladesh, 2013. Photo by Mehdi Hasan Khan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

The government of Bangladesh this week banned Facebook along with mobile chat apps Viber and WhatsApp in an apparent effort to maintain public order. When implementing the ban, the country's Telecommunications Regulatory Commission mistakenly shut down the Internet altogether for roughly 75 minutes.

The ban may have been related to the November 18 shooting of an Italian priest visiting the country, an act for which ISIS claimed responsibility.

Observers also believe the ban was intended soften public reactions to recent war crimes trials. This week, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court upheld death sentences for two political leaders who were found guilty of genocide and rape that took place during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Former minister Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, a leader of the powerful Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, face imminent execution. Their political supporters have spoken out against the ruling and vowed to stand in the way of the justice system.

Tensions surrounding war crimes trials peaked in 2013 when secular pro-democracy groups demonstrated mass support for the execution of convicted war criminals. Protesters argued that impunity was so endemic in Bangladesh that this punishment was the only way to guarantee that leaders like Mujahid did not return to power. Among leaders of the protests were a group of progressive bloggers who have suffered severe consequences of persecution and vigilante violence, some of it fatal, ever since the protests. During this time, the Internet and social media have been key territories where these groups have both rallied support and weathered abuse from their adversaries.

Commenting on the ban on social media platforms, Dhaka Police Commissioner Md Monirul Islam told the Dhaka Tribune: “The government ordered blocking the services on security grounds as criminals often use these services to plan and carry out subversive acts.” The Commission issued letters to local ISPs and telecommunication service providers ordering them to carry out the block on November 17.

User reports suggest that ISPs’ strategies for implementing the ban seem to be varied. Some have reported that Facebook is intermittently available on certain ISPs. Others say they are able to use Facebook's chat function while other services appear to be suspended. In many cases, users are simply circumventing the ban by using privacy-enhancing technologies such as VPNs and the Tor browser.

Death sentence rumored for Bassel Safadi

Rumors surfaced last week that Syrian web developer Bassel Khartabil aka Bassel Safadi may have been secretly sentenced to death by Syrian military authorities. Bassel’s whereabouts have been unknown since he was taken from the Adra civilian prison to an unknown location in October 2015. Supporters are urging foreign governments and the UN to take action, among other things by signing an online petition calling for his immediate release.

Global Voices member faces criminal charges in Morocco

Global Voices writer and former Advox director Hisham Almiraat is facing criminal charges of “threatening the internal security of the State” in his native Morocco. Almiraat will face trial along with six other civil society advocates for what many media rights groups agree is an attempt by the Moroccan government to silence its critics. Although originally scheduled to begin on November 19, the trial has been postponed until January 27. The Global Voices community stands in solidarity with Hisham and has called on authorities to drop all charges against the seven defendants. Supporters are tweeting under the hashtag #Justice4Morocco and are invited to join our statement of support by clicking here.

Kazakh activist detained for YouTube comments

Kazakh activist Bolatbek Blyalov was detained for “inciting social discord” on November 9 over comments he made on YouTube regarding a range of issues including Kazakh nationalism and the use of Kazakh and Russian languages in Kazakhstan. He is now the third activist to be arrested in the past month on similar charges.

Hip-hop gets the boot on Chinese streaming sites

China’s Ministry of Culture is tightening its control over online music, encouraging online streaming sites to screen songs for inappropriate content before allowing music to go online. The ministry banned a list of 120 songs, many of them by hip-hop artists, in August from online distribution because they were “morally harmful”, according to Reuters. Online music platforms were told to begin submitting information about their music to officials from April 1 onwards.

Reddit down in Turkey

Turkey blocked access to Reddit on November 13, and then lifted the block a few days later without any explanation. The block, which appears to have been instituted at the DNS level, was enforced under the controversial Internet Law No. 5651 under which sites can be blocked without court authorization. It is unclear what might have triggered the block. Countries will sometimes block websites if those sites refuse to remove specific content from their networks. Reddit customarily publishes reports on content removal requests that it receives from governments on the ChillingEffects subreddit, but this page does not show any reports from the Turkish government.

Censorship could be in the cards for Canadian gambling sites

The Canadian government may soon embark on its own foray into censorship. The Quebec government announced plans to order ISPs to block a list of unlicensed gambling websites, censuring the ISPs with fines up to $100,000 for a first-time offense for failure to comply. Local  free expression advocates are arguing that the government lacks the authority to regulate the Internet in this manner.

Belgian court to Facebook: “No cookies for you!”

Facebook received another harsh blow in Europe last week when a court in Belgium ruled that the social networking company cannot collect and store information about people in Belgian territory who do not have Facebook accounts. The company, whose international headquarters are located in Ireland, uses cookies to track people’s online activities. If Facebook doesn’t comply with the court ruling, the company could be fined with up to US$ 270K per day. Facebook said that they will take steps in order to stop collecting online information about people in Belgium, but that they will also appeal the Brussels court ruling.

Facebook user data requests on the rise from Hong Kong

A recent transparency report from Facebook shows that the Hong Kong government asked the company for many more users’ data than in previous periods. The numbers spiked sharply in the first half of 2015, following the Occupy Central protests from September to December 2014. Facebook recorded an 82 percent increase in the requests in 2015 compared to the second half of 2014 and over double the number of overall requests compared to the same period last year. The US contrinues to be the country that makes the most requests for user data each year according to the report.

Twitter’s Russian data dilemma

Russian authorities are now seeking to require that Twitter to store Russian users’ data on servers located in Russia. This comes with the reversal of Russian media watchdog Roscomnadzor’s data localization law passed in September. Previously, Roscomnadzor indicated that the law wouldn’t affect Twitter, as it didn’t consider the kind of data Twitter stores to be “personal information.”

New Research: OnlineCensorship.org is online!

A new online data project launched by Global Voices author and free expression advocate Jillian C. York seeks to encourage social media companies to operate with greater transparency and accountability toward their users as they make decisions that regulate speech. Onlinecensorship.org collects reports from users in an effort to shine a light on what content is taken down, why companies make certain decisions about content, and how content takedowns are affecting communities of users around the world.

Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Hae-in Lim, Bojan Perkov and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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5 comments

  • Matt

    I personally have used Tor and HMA! PRO services for as long as I can remember to bypass censorship. When the Arab Spring began, the powers to be shut down all social media agents so that the people of those areas could not let the Western world know of the atrocities being committed there by their own government body. Anonabox has recently released a new line of products and their Anonabox PRO has both Tor and VPN capabilities. If I’m a journalist or civilian living in these areas of the world where the government has the power to limit your internet access, this is a must have.

  • […] has been nearly two weeks since the government of Bangladesh banned Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp and other social messaging applications in the […]

  • […] has been nearly two weeks since the government of Bangladesh banned Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp and other social messaging applications in the […]

  • […] in Bangladesh, authorities have continued the ban on Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp and various other social messaging applications that began on November 18. The ban […]

  • […] バングラデシュ政府当局が、11月18日に開始したfacebook、Viber、WhatsApp等のメッセージ機能を持つ多くのソーシャルアプリの使用禁止令を依然解いていない。最高裁判所は、パキスタンからの独立を目的とした1971年のバングラデシュ独立戦争の際に、虐殺とレイプの罪で有罪判決を受けた2人の戦犯に対し、死刑判決を下した。ソーシャルアプリの使用禁止令は、判決が及ぼすと思われる「治安悪化への懸念」に基づいて発行された。被告の政党支持者の中には、暴力的な過激派に属する者もおり、判決に対する彼らの抗議は、社会不安を煽り立てた。国民は、VPNやプロキシによるネットワーク、あるいは、トーアブラウザ等のツールを使って、各種SNSを利用しようとしたが、電気通信部門担当国務大臣のタラナ・ハリムは、こうした行為を「違法」として、公然と非難した。ネットワークユーザーの報告によれば、各通信会社から、そうした「違法」ツール使用への監視が強化されているとの注意があったという。 […]

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