Restriction on internet access
How far legally justified?
While certain countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, are considering whether to recognize Internet Access as inherent to the freedom of expression and other universal human rights, measures aiming at content and access block over the internet is no less frequent.
Countries such as Finland, France, Switzerland and Estonia have already ruled that Internet Access is a fundamental human right for their citizens. Contrarily, countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, India are blocking internet access arbitrarily now and then.
In November and December 2015, Bangladesh blocked Facebook and some mobile messaging applications for an uncertain period, showing security reasons. However, a good number of Internet users in the nation appeared on Facebook - when the Internet was restored - and posted comments informing individuals the best way to sidestep the government's prohibition on the web.
It is near to impossible to restrict anything completely over the internet. There are several indirect accesses accessible to get to the blocked substance.
In most of the cases of internet block or ban, reasons shown were either misguided or against the spirit of free expression. Although a legal basis exists for blocking access to websites, any interference must be proportionate to the legitimate objective pursued. Within this context, it is submitted that the domain-based blocking of websites and platforms carrying legal content such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter etc., is directly in conflict with Article 39 of the Constitution and constitutes a serious infringement on freedom of speech.
Such a disproportionate measure would be too far-reaching than reasonably necessary in a democratic society. The Internet started to play an essential role as a medium for mass communication, especially through the development of Web 2.0 based platforms, enabling citizens to actively participate in the political debate and discourse. These platforms provide a venue popular across the world for alternative and dissenting views. Therefore, banning access to entire social media platforms carries very strong implications for political and social expression.
The Internet offers great potential for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information. Internet access may be understood as a contemporary form of the right to self-expression, a part of basic access to public services in an increasingly digitized world. Add to it the increased quality of life that comes with the huge jump in access to cultural and logistic information. Assimilating the idea of the fundamental right to low-cost internet service is the only immediate rational move for modern, illuminated societies.
However, like any tool for expression, it can be used in good and bad ways. While it is acknowledged that freedom of expression is not an absolute right, there are several areas where regulation has been too heavy-handed. The Internet should not be used by governments as an excuse for introducing new technologies of control or for curtailing existing liberties. Although the right to freedom of expression can be restricted, the circumstances under which this may be done have to be narrowly circumscribed. This is the case for expression on the Internet as it is in any other forum. Given the ad hoc nature of many national initiatives, international mechanisms must give a clear indication of the extent to which regulation of the Internet is compatible with the international legal guarantee of the right to freedom of expression.
In this regard, it seems appropriate to refer to the U.S. District Court's decision in Trump Twitter Block Case from the U.S. The principal question in Donald Trump case was whether a public official may, as per the U.S. First Amendment, "block" a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views of that person. The New York District Court decided that public official's right to limit his audiences cannot trump the people's freedom of speech -their right to speak freely to advocate ideas in public forum. As blocking restricts the right of the blocked person to speak altogether, this is impermissible under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, the government's policy for the internet has been one of censorship. Attempts over the last few years to regulate contents as well as access to the Internet have focused on restricting contents and, in some cases, access to the Internet altogether. From blocking correspondence applications and sites on ethical grounds to limiting access to social media, government strategies are copiously clear. When it comes to freedom of expression, our mouth is taped. Our legislature even asked that Facebook require a national ID for opening new records - a crazy suggestion that Facebook did not consent to.
If the government is true in its endeavour to build web infiltration of the population, then trying to flap off any part of the internet will end up as a failure. This is where we as a nation have failed to grasp the nature and potential of the internet.
The questions the government ought to present is how the utilization of the web can be made more secure, the private data of the users be ensured, and what infrastructural and arrangement changes might be made to guarantee that entrance to the web can mean its extreme objectives. Rather we appear to be occupied in attempting to direct individuals' private lives on the web and controlling what they can or cannot get to.
One cannot run a race with their feet tied and similarly, the idea of 'Digital Bangladesh' cannot be realized by blocking and prohibiting access to the internet.
Mohsena Akter Drishty is a final year law student at University of Chittagong