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Thanks to the rapid growth of mobile internet, 53.2% of Bangladeshis now have at least some access to the internet. Although evidence is lacking, it is reasonable to suppose this is heavily concentrated in urban areas, which are increasingly able to access 4G connections.
Despite falling prices, the high cost of an internet connection relative to average wages in Bangladesh remains a constant source of complaint. This belies the fact, however, that even as far back as 2015 the Alliance for Affordable Internet reported that 80% of Bangladeshis could afford a 500 MB mobile data plan, which is a very high percentage for a developing country. And in the four years since, this situation has no doubt improved.
The result is a very active online community, but one that practices a high level of self-censorship following a history of violent attacks on bloggers and independent digital journalists.
Bangladesh is ruled using a two-party system under a largely ceremonial President. Although elections are nominally democratic, the internal structures of each party are not. These are each led by a hereditary family, which has alternated in power since Bangladesh achieved independence in 1972.
This balance of power has been thrown into doubt, however. During the 2018 elections, the ruling Awami League (AL) under President Abdul Hamid cracked down on the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Its leader (and former prime minister) Khaleda Zia, was convicted on corruption charges and jailed amid reports that his party campaign materials were being suppressed.
Numerous cases of bias by the overseeing Election Commission in favor of the AL, plus repeated instances of threats, allegations of fraud, and violence towards opposition candidates, means that few observers consider the election results to be free or fair.
Bangladesh is a nominally secular country, although Islam is recognized as the official religion. State harassment of religious minorities, which include Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Shiite and Ahmadiyya Muslims, is minimal, but societal discrimination, which includes mob violence against places of worship, is common.
Expressions of secularism are not illegal, but can meet with strong public disapproval.
Although 50 of the 350 seats in the National Parliament are reserved for women, some of whom also hold considerable political power, the situation for most women in Bangladesh is not so rosy. Women enjoy fewer marriage, divorce, and inheritance rights than men, with 59 percent of girls married by the time they are 18.
Cases of rape, acid attacks, and other forms of violence (including dowry-related violence) against women occur on an almost daily basis, a situation not helped by a legal system that makes it very hard for women to achieve justice. In reality, most are discouraged from even trying.
Tens of thousands of Bangladeshi women and children (and to a lesser extent men) disappear each year, victims of the country’s burgeoning human trafficking trade.
Gay sex is illegal, although this law is rarely enforced. Day-to-day discrimination and the occasional attack on LGBT individuals, however, is the norm.
Over the last five years or so, the Bangladesh government has invested heavily in network surveillance infrastructure. The most recent initiative formally started in October 2018 and is due for completion in May 2019 at the cost of around $19 million (US).
Dubbed the Cyber Threat Detection and Response, it is claimed the aim of this project to block pornography and monitor terrorism. Its ability to perform a granular analysis of network traffic using deep packet inspection (DPI), however, is concerning. This includes the ability to detect use of VPNs, although these are not blocked at the present time.
In 2018 the government ordered security agencies to intensify their surveillance of social media platforms, including a paramilitary special forces unit accused of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Citizens are required to register SIM cards using both National ID numbers and biometric data, and online news portals must undergo mandatory registration. Individual bloggers are not required to register, however.
In 2017, they banned the sale of mobile phone connections to Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar.
Over the last few years, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has blocked numerous websites and news outlets that criticize the government or security forces. In 2016, the Threema and Wickr messaging apps were blocked amid security concerns, but are available now.
Facebook has experienced periodic interruptions in Bangladesh, and in 2017 refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) requiring that it demand Bangladeshi users provide additional identification, including National ID numbers.
Journalists are occasionally arrested, and amid violent protests in August 2018, which started over calls for better road safety, the BTRC ordered ISPs to reduce mobile phone network signals so that only 2G was available. It seems the reason for this was to prevent live streaming and sharing of video content showing the protests.
The Information and Communication Technology Act extends laws relating to print to digital content. Pornography, blasphemy, and gambling (except on horses) is illegal, although it is not clear to what extent such content is blocked online.
Indeed, online gambling is so popular that the Bangladesh Cricket Board has introduced mobile courts during matches, stating that:
Betting will be treated as a public nuisance. Anyone found involved will be convicted and punished instantly in the stadium.
More than government blocking, however, it is Bangladesh culture of vigilante violence that creates an online atmosphere in which most people chose to self-censor. Over the last few years numerous bloggers have been attacked and even murdered, with many choosing to seek asylum abroad.
In 2019 the minority Hindu community in Rangpur was attacked by a rioting mob over false claims that an illiterate Hindu youth who was not even present in the area at the time, had posted anti-Islamic content to Facebook. One protester was fatally shot by police and 25 people were injured (including seven police officers).
This occurred as part of a disturbing trend for posts on Facebook and other social media platforms aimed at inciting people to violence against minorities.
The relatively high cost of internet access in Bangladesh no doubt serves to limit online copyright piracy somewhat. ISPs make no effort to prevent it, however, and we have heard of no cases in which Bangladeshi citizens have run afoul of legal action from copyright holders.
Indeed, as of 2017, The Software Alliance listed Bangladesh as having among the top five piracy rates outside Africa.