Netizen Report: Bangladesh is set to replace its notorious internet law — but the new one looks even worse

Free speech in action: Demonstrators at 2013 protest in Bangladesh, demanding justice for war crimes. Photo by Mehdi Hasan Khan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

In early 2018 the Bangladesh government promised to repeal the notorious Information and Technology (ICT) Act, which has been used to silence critics and media workers.

But instead of repealing and improving this law, the Bangladeshi parliament made it worse. Passed just before the start of election season, the new Digital Security Act expands and reinforces the most draconian aspects of the ICT Act.

The Digital Security Act criminalizes various types of online speech, ranging from defamatory messages to speech that “injures religious values or sentiments.” The law also authorises sentences of up to 14 years in prison for gathering, sending, or preserving classified information of any government using a computer or other digital device. Journalists demonstrated against this provision earlier this year, and have spoken out strongly against the law as it stands.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and various local groups have denounced the law as an attempt to stifle free speech.

Meanwhile, the ICT Act is still going strong and silencing legitimate criticism online. On September 24, a sociology professor in Chittagong was jailed for a critique of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that he had posted on Facebook. A ruling party affiliate filed the case against Maidul Islam in July, under the ICT Act. Although he was originally freed on bail, he was summoned to the police station this week and put behind bars. He has also been suspended from his job with Chittagong University, which is state-run. More than 50 university professors signed a statement demanding his release.

Kenya joins ranks of African governments taxing internet use

Kenyan officials are set to implement a new tax scheme that will impose an excise tax of 15% on telephone and internet services. The charge will place an additional burden on Kenyans, who already pay an excise tax of 20% on mobile money transactions, which represent a significant engine for the local economy.

Kenya will find itself in increasingly good company with the new tax scheme, as nearby Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia have all recently begun taxing different types of internet use — from mobile messaging to blogging — in an effort to increase state revenues. These schemes will also, without question, chip away at African citizens’ abilit to communicate and speak freely online.

Tanzanian regulators double down on ‘blogger tax’

In April 2018, Tanzanian officials implemented the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, informally known as the “blogger tax.” The law requires bloggers and anyone with an independent media site to register with the Tanzanian Communications Regulatory Authority and pay over USD $900 each year for a license. It also restricts the publishing of a long list of types of content, ranging from nudity to fake news to confidential government documents.

In a recent interview with local media outlet The Citizen, the director general of the regulatory authority, James Kilaba, threatened independent media workers who publish state documents online. “We are following up on those publishing such documents online,” he said. “They will be unveiled and arrested for the law to take its course.”

UK government admits to spying on anti-surveillance advocacy group

Not two weeks after the European Court of Human Rights found the UK government’s surveillance programs to be unlawful, three UK intelligence agencies disclosed in writing that they have unlawfully collected and monitored the communications of Privacy International, a London-based NGO that advocates for privacy rights in the EU and beyond.

Migrant rights advocate convicted of libel in France

On September 25, a migrant rights advocate who previously worked in the refugee camps of Calais was convicted of libel by a French court over a tweet he sent out earlier this year. The court sentenced 21-year-old Loan Torondel to a suspended fine, and ordered him to pay court costs. In the tweet published in early January, Torondel shared a photograph of two French police officers standing over a young man (who appears to be a migrant) sitting on his sleeping bag.

Torondel wrote a satirical caption for the image, in which he imagined a dialogue between the police and the man, in which the police confiscated the man’s sleeping bag, and the man begged them to relent, arguing that it was just two degrees celsius outside. “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir,” they replied in the imagined exchange. Torondel was alluding to a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron in which he said: ‘’Never forget, we are the French nation,’’ a statement his critics turned into a meme to mock him.

India’s Supreme Court upholds digital ID system, with some exceptions

A five-judge bench ruled to uphold India’s digital ID system, known as Aadhaar, but placed key restrictions on its use. The Aadhaar system gives each person a unique ID number associated with multiple pieces of that person’s demographic and biometric information and stores it in a centralized database. In theory, it helps people authenticate their identity so that they may access a host of social and federal services.

But the program has suffered from data mismanagement and machine errors that have sometimes increased obstacles for citizens seeking everything from school enrollment to food subsidies. In addition, multiple massive leaks have proven that Aadhaar numbers can be easily disclosed, posted online and used for malicious purposes.

The court ruled that Aadhaar numbers shall no longer be required for residents to purchase SIM cards, open bank accounts, enroll in school or take university entrance exams. An Aadhaar ID will be voluntary for Indians who do not receive state subsidies of any kind. The section of the original Aadhaar Act that allowed private companies to require authentication via Aadhaar also was struck down.

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