Bangladeshi government targets world’s largest Bengali blogging platform in porn censorship spree

Bangladeshi government targets world’s largest Bengali blogging platform in porn censorship spree

- in Blogging

Over the past week, Bangladeshi authorities have banned more than 18,000 websites and apps as a part of a so-called “war” on pornography.

A list of targeted sites sent to internet providers included Somewhereinblog.net, the internet’s largest Bengali language-based blogging platform, Google Books, and popular social media apps like Tik Tok and Bigo.

In addition, a number of high-profile social media users have been summoned to police stations and asked to remove “vulgar” content from their pages, in what appears to be an effort of moral policing.

Last November, the Bangladesh High Court directed the government to block all pornography websites and obscene materials online in the subsequent the next six months. Soon thereafter, the Bangladesh government blocked more than 4,000 pornographic and at least 176 other websites.

This week’s censorship spree appears to be the latest result of the ruling. On February 18, the Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar wrote on his Facebook page:

I have found 15,606 porn sites and 2235 gambling sites. Including them are Tik Tok and Bigo. All are being blocked.

According to Emdadul Hoque, general secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association, internet service providers in the country have complied with the order from BTRC. He also pointed out that many users can still access those sites by using virtual private networks.

Online content bans are not new in Bangladesh. In November 2016, now former State Minister for Post and Telecommunications Tarana Halim formed a committee to block pornographic websites and stop the publication of “offensive” content.

The following month, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) blocked more than 500 pornography sites according to the recommendation of the committee. A March 2017 report suggested that some of these sites had become accessible again, after they had upgraded to HTTPS, making them more difficult to block.

Online censorship is also codified in the 2018 Digital Security Act, which endows law enforcement authorities with the unilateral power to decide what content can be blockedonline.

As of December 2018, there were almost 91 million internet users in Bangladesh with 85 million of them using the internet through their mobile phones. In terms of sheer bandwidth, the crackdown on adult and gambling sites may massively reduce internet usage.

The Dhaka Tribune obtained what appears to be an official list of the banned websites. The list include the blogging platform somewhereinblog.net and Google’s online library collection, Google Books.

When asked whether these sites were in any way related to pornography, Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar told Dhaka Tribune:

Have you ever gone through the content that blogging websites publish? After verifying reports on all the websites, we made the move. The government is not having porn sites blocked by internet service providers (ISPs) alone.

He told AFP:

I want to create a safe and secure internet for all Bangladeshis, including children. And this is my war against pornography. And this will be a continuous war.

He conceded that there might be some mistakes in verifying the websites in question and added that the mistakes would be resolved.

There have been no reports of how these sites were identified, or what criteria were used in the process.

Ban targets largest community of Bengali bloggers in the world

Somewhere in Blog or Badh Bhangar Awaaz (The Voice of Breaking Barriers) was the first public blogging site built for the Bengali language, with functionalities similar to LiveJournal. Established in 2005, it has long been home to the largest community of Bengali bloggers in the world. An average of 60,000 bloggers post or comment on the platform each day.

On February 18, 2019 after some users reported that the site had become unavailable, Somewherein.net posted a notice stating that their system was functioning properly and that they had not received official notification from the authorities about any disruption in service. Although the site appeared on the official list of banned sites a few days later, it was still accessible via some ISPs in the country as of February 22.

In a message to the team at Global Voices, Somewherein co-founder Jana Syeda Gulshan Ferdous described the site’s moderation system. She explained that site administrators are careful to remove content that could be seen as pornographic or objectionable.

If we spot or get reports of objectionable content, we take action. Platforms for publishing content will eventually get objectionable content posted, that’s in their nature, so do Facebook, Wikipedia, Youtube, and a lot of other sites. I believe SomewhereInblog has been more responsible and responsive to remove illegal content than foreign popular sites.

She said the team would push for the platform to be removed from the ban list in due time.

Today Bangladesh is in shock for the big fire in Old Dhaka (which killed more than 70 people), we will wait a bit, then we will mobilize for reversal of this order and increased support.

The ban on Somewherein is most likely the result of a few pieces of content on the platform that authorities saw as “objectionable”. But blocking an entire platform, home to thousands of independent blogs, is a disproportionate response to the issue. Authorities could easily file a complaint with the platform, asking that the specific, offending content be removed.

Some of the secular writers killed in recent years in Bangladesh. From top left clockwise: Faisal Arefin Dipan, Shafiul Islam, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu, Rajib Haider, Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.

As it currently stands, this ban on Somewherein casts a shadow on what has long been a central space for discussion and commentary. It also calls to mind the waves of political violence that have led to attacks and taken the lives of more than fourteen bloggers and progressive activists in Bangladesh since 2013. There has been a sharp decline in the trend of blogging during this time and a number of other blogging platforms have been shut down.

Moral policing on social media

There are strong indications that authorities are also monitoring social media accounts for “objectionable” content.

On February 17, Bangladesh police summoned Sanai Mahbub, an aspiring actress who made local headlines last year after becoming the first Bangladeshi celebrity to announce that she had undergone breast augmentation surgery. She regularly posts suggestive but fully-clothed selfies and videos on her different social media channels. The police reportedly demanded that she remove provocative images from her Facebook, Instagram and TikTok pages.

Indigenous blogger Kung Thang posted on Facebook:

I can’t understand what is the fault of Sanai. Shouldn’t a citizen of an independent country be on her own? If someone wants to do breast implant and show off in Facebook live, they can – If I don’t like it, I won’t go to her page. Why should you shoot down all those small desires of common people?

Two days later, popular YouTuber Salman Muqtadir was summoned by the police after one of his more controversial music videos caught the minister’s attention. He has more than one million subscribers to his channel and around 1.6 million followers on Facebook.

In a complete turnaround, Salman appeared on Facebook live to apologize for the controversial video. He said that he took down the video, understood that he had acted badly, and that he supported the Minister’s “war” on vulgar content.

All told, these experiences and the extension of the ban to sites like Somewherein and Google Books suggest that the current government’s definition of “objectionable” may go far beyond what many bloggers and social media users imagine.

[“source=globalvoices”]