New Internationalist

When Luddites go digital

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The current ban of YouTube is symptomatic of a 20th-century government unwilling to embrace the 21st century, says Shahidul Alam, as he looks back at the struggle for a digital Bangladesh.

Remember the old days? It was 1993. Getting a new telephone line took several years and large bribes. Calling overseas required making a trunk call through an operator and a wait of several hours. Phone calls were expensive. A one-minute fax or call to the US cost well over 100 taka. The exchange rate then was very different, so a 116-taka one-page fax would have set you back three US dollars! We needed government permission to import a fax machine and the clunky early generation mobile phones cost over $2,500 each. That was less than 20 years ago. Now, Mobin, the guy in our mudir dokan (corner shop) downloads videos from my blog (where he is featured) on his mobile phone. My attempts to curb Facebook use at work have failed miserably. We finally have 3G, at least partially.

A revolution begins

How did this digital revolution come about? We had decided to set up our picture agency Drik, not in the established photographic marketplaces of London, Paris or New York, but in Dhaka, where our photographers were based. But while we were close to our photographers, our distance from the market, in terms of miles and means, was enormous. What we also wanted to do was to set up a South-South exchange, so we could build on our collective strengths. A Dutch organization called TOOL was interested in publishing my book, and I decided to meet up with them. I discovered they also offered off-line email, using Fidonet technology. More importantly, they too were keen on setting up a South-South exchange.

Both sides moved fast and soon Hans Scheen was at Drik with a bag full of 1,200 baud modems. That’s 1.2k for those who can’t think that far back! We arranged a seminar at the Engineer’s Institute, and invited the secretary of the ministry of information. We also wrote to the ministry asking for permission to set up an email service. I still haven’t had a reply to that 1993 letter, but the secretary did come to our seminar, so we could hardly have been accused of going behind the government’s back! Pretty soon, we had over 500 subscribers. My friend Mohandas from Bangalore had made us a fax/data/voice switch, so our single telephone line could be used for all three functions. The central server of Bangladesh’s email network was a 286 computer.

Since we didn’t have an international line, TOOL would ring us twice a day from Amsterdam, to connect to our electronic postbox. The pzzzst of the modem handshake was music to our ears. The phone would ring all day and all night, in between voice calls and the occasional fax. We were connected. Load shedding had not yet become the norm. Other networks soon sprung up. We discovered the government was trying to set up an X25 protocol. Some consultant somewhere must have come up with the idea of dumping antiquated technology on us. Mr Al Hussainy was a senior secretary who commanded respect. He admitted he didn’t know much about the technology, but agreed to stay with us to lend us weight. Our fledgling email community met on Drik’s terrace and decided on a game plan. We gatecrashed the T&T office in Shere-e-Bangla Nagar. Luckily, the government engineers knew far less about the technology than we did, and with Al Hussainy on our side, we won the day. The X25 plan was scrapped. We continued aiming for a TCP/IP protocol. We wanted Internet.

Getting Bangladesh online

Email continued to be expensive so files had to be squeezed. Word files were saved in Version 1 to reduce file size. If formatting wasn’t too important, we used text files. We formed an email club that met every month. We shared tips and taught each other how to download from the Net using email via Gopher and Veronica. There was no stopping us.

What we wanted, of course, was the fully fledged internet, but for that we needed government permission. But there was no-one in government with the farsightedness to recognize the importance of the Net. The caretaker government in 1996 provided an opportunity. They were only in for three months and had the single mandate of holding a fair and free election, but they seemed to be doing things that went beyond their mandate and they were doing it fast. They also seemed to be a reasonable bunch of people with some credibility. At least they hadn’t come in with the sole purpose of making personal gain.

What we wanted was the fully fledged internet, but for that we needed government permission. But there was no-one in government with the farsightedness to recognize its importance

My ex-partner in the Bangladesh bridge team, Farooq Sobhan, was the foreign secretary. ‘You’ve got to use this chance to get Bangladesh online,’ I implored. ‘I’m meeting [entrepreneur and government advisor] Manzur Elahi tomorrow morning,’ he responded. ‘Let me have a concept paper by 8:30 tomorrow morning. No promises but I’ll give it a try.’ We finished the document at 3am and later dropped it off to Farooq. I never asked him what role our document had played, but before his short tenure was over Syed Manzur Elahi had given permission to a company called ISN to set up internet facilities. Technically their licence didn’t permit them to resell their services, but the adviser was going to turn a blind eye, all for a good cause. We all turned up for the launch of ISN’s new service. They were a competitor, but no-one saw it that way. Internet was here and we were going to celebrate.

There’s a tree in the way!

It was still very pricey at 10 taka (38 cents) per minute. And their VSAT provided bandwidth of only 64k for servicing all of Bangladesh, but we were online. There was no looking back. Drik too eventually went online but VSAT technology was ridiculously expensive. We were using an Intelsat satellite. An Aguilar satellite offered cheaper connectivity, but there was a small problem. It was lower over the horizon and there was a tree in the way. So we found a Bangla fix. We built a tower on our rooftop so we could reach over the tree to the cheaper satellite! But we all rued missing out on the submarine cable. Trying to get the government to see beyond their noses was going to be a tall order. I’d set up an appointment with Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, who was then a member of the planning commission.

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Tower being built on Drik rooftop to reach over nearby tree to access Aguilar Satellite offering cheaper connectivity. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

That visit convinced me that there was no way we could convince these Luddites that the 21st century was approaching. As is the protocol when visiting high-ranking government officials, I waited in the room of the private secretary (they are often powerful people themselves as they control access). I curiously looked at the pile of paper a junior officer was carefully collating, indexing and filing away in fat folders. The serious documents this official was diligently filing away were ‘out of office’ auto-generated replies! His instructions must have been to log and file every incoming email and he was not going to let up on his designated task.

My zeal tempered by this encounter with brute reality, I returned to Drik chastened. Facing the 21st century with 20th-century politicians and bureaucrats would need a different strategy.

A digital Bangladesh?

I’ll fast-forward somewhat. The election manifesto of the present government was to bring about a digital Bangladesh. Despite my previous experience, we launched a new company dedicated to information and communication technology. The sector held huge promise – all we needed were sensible policies. That remains our stumbling block.

No dissent or criticism of any form was to be allowed. Digital Bangladesh didn’t extend to free expression on the Net

We had faced censorship when we launched Banglarights, the country’s human rights portal. An article critical of the military had offended the gatekeepers and all telephone lines of Drik had been closed down. It had taken two and a half years to get our lines restored. Our show on Tibet had offended our Chinese masters so that too was shut down. My own show, ‘Crossfire’, also ended up being closed down by armed riot police. We did take the government to court and eventually managed to show the work, but the signals were clear. No dissent or criticism of any form was to be allowed. A young man who criticized the prime minister on Facebook was arrested (we never really found out what happened to him), and Facebook blocked. Digital Bangladesh didn’t extend to free expression on the Net. Particularly when something less than flattering was directed at the prime minister.

The current fiasco has more serious consequences. Facebook is an important communication tool and clearly the king of social media. Disrupting it affects the social fabric of many who use it solely for their communication. The current censorship of YouTube is more sinister. It started with a badly made film by someone who lives far away. It was irresponsible to post it and insensitive and callous to promote it. But the idea that any offensive content by anyone anywhere on the Net can result in a significant part of the Net being switched off in Bangladesh provides ample ammunition to all our competitors and gives awesome power to anyone who wants to impede the growth of our nation. Just post something that a small section of Bangladeshis will take serious issue with and hey presto, a paranoid and pliant government will immediately pull the plug on itself.

Just post something that a small section of Bangladeshis will take serious issue with and hey presto, a paranoid and pliant government will immediately pull the plug on itself

YouTube is the second-largest search engine on the Net and the third most-viewed website after Google and Facebook. While many use it to search movies, many also use it for research. It is the world’s largest repository of moving images. My class assignments require students to both watch instructional videos and post their own work on the video reservoir. Exam markings are based on YouTube postings. It is a teaching resource that is only bettered by the rare physical presence of skilled teachers in classrooms. This pointless ban is playing havoc with any teacher attempting to bring students up to speed in a digital world. If one were to assume the ban was to last as long as Google allowed the offending video to stay up, then the ban in Bangladesh could be permanent, or at least until the next elections. Of course, I don’t expect the new government to be any wiser. After all, they were the ones who had rejected the submarine cable offer. But since all decisions by previous governments are cancelled by default, even stupid decisions have a finite lifetime in our strange land.

With governments like these, who needs enemies?

This is an edited version of a post on the Shahidul News website. Cross-posted with permission of the author.

The December 2012 issue of New Internationalist focuses on internet rights. For updates see the magazine section of our website.

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