Bangladesh has transformed into a digitalized country within the last decade and internet users reached to 103.8 million. This internet revolution has leveraged our life and communications in various ways; however, it also has created questions and concerns about human rights in the digital sphere.
On top of that, COVID-19 pandemic has made us more reliant on digital technologies than ever before but again it comes up with the concerns of human rights violations or in other words digital rights. Now the question is, being a citizen of a digitally transformed society, how much are we aware of our rights and their violations in the digital arena?
The digital world has provided us with the availability and use of digital tools to communicate on the internet, digital devices, smart devices, and other technologies. Undoubtedly, it brought a lot of blessings for the development organizations like us including all human rights workers and development sectors.
Now we can easily connect and communicate around the globe, we can get informed, inform others and investigate using encrypted communications (e.g., Signal), satellite imagery, and data streams to promote human rights or to defend an issue. We even can use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to presume issues and intercept human rights violations.
Thus, ordinary individuals should have the freedom to choose what digital tools (web services, antivirus software, smartphone SIM cards, biometrics, and secured personal devices). They would like to access what they consume on it and what they communicate through it without being exploited by any government or state authorities. And these are our digital rights!
Digital rights are closely linked to freedom of expression and privacy which allow people to access, use, create and publish digital media, as well as access and use computers, other electronic devices, and communications networks. These are human rights that are enabled through technology and the internet. Technological advances are constant and each brings with it the need for a new regulatory framework. Public digital policies should give people the right to express and enforce net neutrality, while technology companies should give people the right to privacy and protection from unwarranted surveillance.
Now, digital rights are human rights because the way we get to enjoy our right to privacy, education, political participation, work, accessibility, and many others is shaped by our access to the internet and our skills to make the most out of it. As we transit to the digital age, we need to make sure that this is a just digital transition that leaves no one behind.
As per an article on CoCoNet republished by Association for Progressive Communication (APC) in 2020 that the conceptualization of digital rights can be explained by thinking in four spheres: through viewing the digital as a space/spaces and thus digital rights as a translation of conventional rights to digital spaces; through viewing the digital data representation of physical entities i.e. focusing digital rights on data security and privacy; accessing digital spaces and meaningful participation; and participation in the governance of the digital or the Internet.
Since 2008, the current government’s major concern in the political manifesto is to digitize the country. However, it merely bears any concern on the rights associated with access to digital tools. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission reports that 152 million Bangladeshis have a mobile phone subscription, creating a tremendous market for the digital economy (2021).
However, the effective enactment of digital rights in Bangladesh nevertheless comes with stipulations. The Digital Security Act was passed in 2018 despite intense criticism and condemnation from human rights defenders, students, civil society organizations, and the international community for its overly broad and vague provisions, which lack legal certainty and precision.
The Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression, particularly those legitimately practiced by human rights defenders, imposing heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It gives the government absolute power to initiate investigations into anyone whose activities are considered a ‘threat’ by giving law enforcement agencies power to arrest without a warrant, simply on suspicion that a crime has been committed through the use of social media.
In addition, the Act allows the Government to order removal and blocking of any information or data on the internet it deems necessary, thereby providing broad scope to silence those who are critical of its policies or who share information on human rights violations in the country. It allows for invasive forms of surveillance by permitting authorities to ask service providers and other intermediaries for data without requiring a court-obtained warrant. The Act has been a setback towards creation of a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders to exercise freedom of expression in the country.
In violation of the right to freedom of expression enshrined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Digital Security Act gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, seize devices and their contents, and arrest individuals without a warrant simply for a comment they may have shared online.
The DSA contains a provision that allows individuals, even those who are not aggrieved, to file cases. It is an unusual provision because defamation laws typically are meant to protect the individual who is subjected to the act of defamation and being harmed. But to file a case under the DSA, the individual does not need to be defamed personally but only to have felt that someone else has been defamed or insulted.
Again, section 43 allows for police officials to enter and search any property, seize digital devices, gather data, information, or other related objects, and arrest any person present on the property without a warrant, merely on suspicion that an offense under the Act has been, or will be, committed.
In addition, the Act provides immunity to those who conduct surveillance on the Government’s behalf, by stating that any person, entity, or service provider, who gives or publishes information for the interest of the investigation, cannot be investigated under civil or criminal law. However, this brutally violates one’s human rights in the digital arena, and it is also evident that this power has been widely misused.
We must be free to express ourselves online, and to access information and opinions, including those that may offend, shock, or disturb, whilst respecting others’ reputations and privacy. Public authorities have a duty to respect and protect this right. Any restrictions to our freedom of expression must pursue a legitimate aim in accordance with the rights enshrined in Bangladesh Constitution. Restrictions may apply to expressions that incite discrimination, hatred, or violence.
We should have the freedom to use any website, application, or other services to associate with our peers. We also enjoy the right to protest peacefully online. However, one should be aware that one may face legal consequences if online protest leads to blockages, disruption of services, or damage to the property of others. Also, our personal data should only be processed with our consent, or if it is laid down by law.
We should be informed whenever our personal data is processed or transferred to other parties and when by whom and for what purpose. We should also exercise control over our data and we should not be subject to general surveillance or interception, except in exceptional circumstances prescribed by law, such as a criminal investigation.
Thus, it is high time we rethink the fact that we are actually being digitally aware of our human rights or not. Also, we must be aware of and increase digital literacy among the netizens of the country for a safe and peaceful digital space.
Nahian Ahmed Shah is a development professional at VOICE, Dhaka, Bangladesh.