Working in close coordination with the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) and the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre (NTMC), the Sheikh Hasina government is preparing a plan to block all social media platforms, primarily Facebook and Tiktok, 24-48 hours before the January 7 general elections.
The proposed move is aimed at preventing social media users from transmitting information – text and visuals – that could otherwise expose attempts by “vested interests” to commit electoral malpractices reminiscent of the events that occurred the night before the controversial December 30, 2018, polls that were marred by ballot stuffing and other forms of rigging.
The move to block all social media at least 24-48 hours before the forthcoming elections follows at least three years of meticulous planning and brainstorming by officials of the BTRC and NTMC, besides the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the National Security Intelligence (NSI), the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Police Bureau of Investigation, Special Branch, the Army, Air Intelligence Department and a host of senior police officers. The meeting was held at the BTRC’s Dhaka headquarters under the chairmanship of the then Posts and Telecommunication minister Mustafa Jabbar.
The blueprint to control popular social media platforms, including “content removal”, and mount surveillance on users before the January 7, 2024, elections was exposed by Northeast News on October 22. This plan was set in motion on December 28, 2021, when senior BTRC, NTMC, DGFI, NSI officials met to take stock of the measures that had already been taken to control social media platforms and to chalk out future steps leading up to the January 2024 elections. Northeast News has accessed the minutes of the December 28, 2021, meeting.
During the meeting, BTRC Chairman Shyam Sunder Sikder reminded the assembled officials that their respective organisations were “duty bound” to operationalise and execute the 2018 Digital Security Act in ways to remove content as and when deemed necessary. Responding to this, Bangladesh’s Digital Security Agency (DSA) Director General Abdus Sattar Sarkar said that his “organisation was working in close collaboration with the BTRC and NTMC to screen all social media” platforms.
Referring to “reporting systems” for Facebook and YouTube, the DGFI representative at the meeting, Wing Commander Arifur Rahman suggested instituting a similar system for checking and controlling other social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter to prevent “anti-national” activities. While CID Deputy Inspector General Jamil Ahmed suggested measures against “fake social media IDs”, Jabbar went a step further to recommend that officials should be held accountable “in the event content removal or blocking is not reported” on time.
The minutes of the meeting reveal an elaborate and well laid out move to establish separate committees at the BTRC and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, and which would work in a coordinated manner to evolve a broad policy framework for checking content on OTT platforms.
Pointing out that the NTMC’s powers “had grown” sufficiently for it to take strong measures, the organisation’s Director General Brigadier General Ziaul Ahsan recommended “directly controlling” the SIM cards issued by Banglalink and Teletalk and even “terminating” the smartphone Facebook accounts of users of such service providers. Taking a cue from Brig Gen Ahsan, Jabbar instructed the BTRC chief to take measures to train the two agencies’ engineers (of the Digital Security Cell) so that they are able to fulfill their responsibilities more effectively.
Disclosing that the plan to install sophisticated equipment under the Cyber Threat Detection and Response (CTDR) project was getting delayed despite a green signal by the Information and Communication Technology adviser, Sikder said that plans to install “two monitoring terminals at the BTRC and NTMC” was running behind schedule. However, the Telecommunication Deparrtment’s Deputy Director Saidur Rahman informed that the monitoring terminals had already been installed at the BTRC and NTMC establishments.
The document reveals alarming details related to gathering information and other data related to Internet users. Admitting that the CID was faced with the “massive problem” of lack of complete information on Internet users, the agency’s the then Superintendent of Police Nazrul Islam recommended enhancing the organisational capacity to hire “ethical hackers”.
In this context, the then NSI Additional Director Commander M Shoeb Khan pointed out that his agency was faced with the problem of lack of proper details related broadband users’ Internet Protocol Detail Record (IPDR). He added that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) did not maintain even one-year details of IPDR. At this point in the meeting, Jabbar stepped into suggest that action be taken against such ISPs.
The meeting recorded six key decisions which would be taken by the BTRC, NTMC and the other security agencies in the future. Some of these decisions, which were given additional teeth in the last couple of years, will now be implemented for these to be effective ahead of the January 7 elections.
While all the law enforcement agencies and intelligence organisations concerned would have to execute their respective decisions on content removal/blocking through the BTRC, the NTMC was charged with the responsibility of preparing a list of all “free DPN Apps/Services”. This list would be made available to the BTRC which would then “act in accordance with the government’s directives on blocking them”.
All law enforcement and security agencies would monitor Tik Tok content and provide timely progress reports to the BTRC. At the same time, the NTMC would provide combined details of its “monitoring systems” that would in turn be “used” by the BTRC for “necessary action”. Furthermore, it was decided that BTRC engineers in the Digital Monitoring Cell would undergo rigorous training at the NTMC.
As part of an all-pervasive move, the BTRC was authorised to take “stringent action” against all ISPs who do not or fail to maintain exhaustive IDPR records. The most alarming decision, which is now underway before the elections, all the law enforcement and intelligence agencies were empowered to “collect information about fact-checkers and fact-checking organisations”.