September 16, 2012 / The Daily Star

Mark Zuckerberg really messed things up for us. As one of the world’s youngest CEOs running the third largest ‘country’, he has given the rest of the world an impression that sitting in front of a computer can be the most profitable business one can fathom, and anyone who knows how to do it right, can be a billionaire. While this was an inspiration for many recent techpreneurs (entrepreneurs who use the power of technology to run and capitalize their businesses), it has raised red flags for ‘democratic’ governments. The latter group suddenly felt it’s a goldmine to make some extra cash, and as prophecy would have it, clenched their fists and dived in to take over it.

If you don’t believe me, you should probably look up our government’s recent policies and guidelines for controlling online mass media. If you think this was only possible in Bangladesh, look again. SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA are just the most recent examples from the history of new media that has got red buttons pinned all the way.

Let’s disseminate locally first. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Information in Bangladesh suggested a set of policies that would potentially ensure responsibility of production and distribution of content in online media (gonomaddhyom). While the policy mentions an extensive array of guidelines for online gonomaddhyom, it failed to specify exactly what form of online media they apply to. News, in itself is a broad category and can range from a status update commenting on current affairs on Facebook to a declared and independent virtual newspaper. Personal and community blogs deconstruct the everyday, some newsworthy while the rest banal. Yet, the fact that the policies do not specify what only reinforces either of two things. One, that those who came up with the policy had no idea what online media is; and two, that those who came up with the policy had a very good grasp of the whole scenario and kept the definition open to encompass anything and everything.

Provided the latter is true, it gives the government unprecedented authority over virtual content, which means absolute and unacceptable infringement of democracy. If the common people cannot express their thoughts, given every other mass communication medium is bound by policies – then the Constitution of People’s Republic of Bangladesh protecting the citizen’s right to express freely and without fear needs a serious jolt.

The content conflict doesn’t end there. The policy further suggests that the government can prohibit the production and distribution of any ‘news’ that affects the state’s reputation. A weak attempt was made to specify what falls under ‘censorship’, however in the end, it basically reminds people they cannot criticize the government, its allies and anything that might be under the hood. If democracy does not permit its people’s right to speak, comment, choose and decide; then we might as well unlearn a few definitions. The foundation of mass communication lies on people’s role to act as a watchdog and keep the rights of its citizens under check; and clearly, the suggested policies seem to defy that.

But, our need to control is like a monkey who had too many Ferrero Rochers. The policy extends to insist that sites operated in Bangladesh must be stored in a central BTRC server. In a nutshell, the ruling government has the ability to shut down any site, any time and without any real reason at their will. Technologically, that maybe a poor call – but socially, legally and the least, logically, it is ridiculous. To make things more complex, the owners of such sites must be registered with the government; which raises the question of the many NRBs who are doing good work online for the people of Bangladesh, yet operating sites from abroad. Newsflash, the policies are restricting the flow of remittance through new media.

Just when you think you’ve had enough, the policies sum up their irrationality by charging a license renewal fee up to 7 lacs, an amount that even print media does not have to pay. Online mass media barely pays for operations, let alone overhead costs. For an industry that has begun taking baby steps, this is a massive blow, essentially discouraging fresh entrepreneurs, young people and most importantly, the coming of globalized resources that could potentially push the society towards development.

There is no validity in saying new media does not need control. Yet, as a booming sector, tying it down with policies can never be the right approach to controlling it. Earlier this year, SOPA and PIPA pledged to prohibit US sites from accumulating and distributing “illegal” content or content to countries who don’t have license for it; essentially, sticking their fingers at sites such as Wikipedia, Google, Megaupload, BitTorrents, and so on. The major players blacked out their sites in protest of the absurdity in passing such an act, their tagline reading: imagine a world where information is not free. This only proves that as policy makers, governments and people, we have yet to figure out how we can protect privacy without infringing fundamental citizen rights or balance between royalty and dissemination. The debate is global, and no single set of guidelines can grasp its capacity.

As I type the final words in this piece, my Facebook newsfeed is flooding with the news of YouTube and Google’s temporary shutdown. The Internet and its products, be it online news media or just a commentary, is a jungle and cutting down one tree creates room for more seeds to sprout. It cannot be more bluntly reinforced that our government’s policies are unfit to our local context, and can only make sense if we were at the peak of a new media revolution. Our present and future generations are still exploring its opportunities, and no policy at this stage should restrict it. Imagine a world where information is not free? I can’t.

 

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