The Human Rights Watch (HRW), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) along with 43 other press freedom, digital rights, and civil society groups have wrote to the telecommunication regulator of Bangladesh demanding the withdrawal of the new proposed policies that could stifle free expression online.
A package of the proposed regulations – Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms – published online on 3 February, would imperil digital security and free speech, the official letter which was issued on Monday states.
The letter highlights provisions including a traceability requirement that would undermine encryption, overbroad and ambiguous bans on a range of content, and plans to empower the information ministry to set binding rules for media outlets' content.
The letter also calls for BTRC, the country's communications regulator, to withdraw the regulations and to consult with those affected by such rules before proposing new regulations.
The key concerns over the drafted regulations are (as per the letter):
- The absence of a safe harbour provision and spectre of penalties for intermediaries, and their employees, will have a chilling effect on free speech and result in over-censorship.
- The traceability requirement will undermine end-to-end encryption, violate privacy and thwart free expression. Further, vulnerable individuals and communities, including journalists, dissidents and activists, would increasingly be at risk of being targeted.
- The mandate for intermediaries to block an overbroad and ambiguous range of content, including content that is "insulting," "harmful," "offensive" or "breaches secrecy of the government," is illegitimate, an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to freedom of expression, and categorically against the https://necessaryandproportionate.org/.
- Truncated timelines for content removal would result in over-censorship and/or excessive prior restraints, arbitrary decisions, erosion of due process, contravention of democratic principles, and unreasonable restrictions on the basic human right to freedom of opinion and expression under Article 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR.
- Overbroad definitions (e.g., OTT is defined as "content, a service or an application that is provided to the end-user over the public internet") in an attempt to implement a one-size-fits-all approach to regulate multiple services that are functionally, technically, and operationally different, are fundamentally flawed.
- The government plans to adopt a code of ethics that is binding on all media, defined broadly, which effectively gives the Ministry of Information unfettered power to set content rules for the media, contrary to international law.
- Legislative backing and parliamentary approval is important for implementing a framework with such far-reaching and transformational impact on fundamental rights and internet freedom. The draft regulations should involve prior consultation with all stakeholders, in line with democratic procedure and international best practices.
Read the full letter here.