Digital Security Act: Why can't it be scrapped?

Digital Security ActProthom Alo illustration

It has been around six weeks that the United Nation's human rights chief had called for the suspension of the indiscriminate use of the Digital Security Act. Victims and critics of this law prefer to call this misuse rather than use of the act. The law has not been suspended. On the contrary, the government has avoided the matter of suspension. It has said that this law cannot be abolished.

Law minister Anisul Huq has said that the recommendations sent by experts of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are being scrutinised and amendments will be made accordingly. No explanation was offered to the people as to why this law could not be suspended while the recommendations were being scrutinised. We do not even know if the High Commissioner has been apprised of the matter. The question naturally arises, what is the problem in scrapping or suspending the act?

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The law is so fraught with problems that the Editors Council, various civic organisations, human rights groups and almost all opposition parties demanded that it be abolished. During the ongoing debate, Prothom Alo on 8 May 2018 published the arguments put forward by the Editors Council for the law's abolition. The underlying message was that this law created scope to keep the media under surveillance, control content and also control the freedom of press, speech and expression that was bestowed upon us by the constitution.

Pointing to what was basically wrong about this law, they said that it lacked clarity and certain words had been used which could be misinterpreted and easily used against the media. They said, the Digital Security Act would create such an environment of alarm and fear that it would virtually be impossible to carry out journalism, investigative journalism in particular. Highlighting nine specific sections of the law, the Editors Council pointed to the problems in definition, the possible scope of misuse and the excessive harshness of punishment. Similar views were reflected in the recommendations of the UN experts.

Concerning the objective of the law, it is said that this has been enacted in order to "ensure digital security and identification, suppression and trial of offences committed through digital devices." No information has been published as to how many persons this law has been used against by the digital security agency formed under this act -- or by any other agencies of the government-- what are the offences, what type of cases have been lodged and how many of these cases have been settled. However, the digital security agency publishes an annual report on cyber threats in Bangladesh. The 2022 report is available on the agency's website and its details give a clear idea of the objective of this law and its misapplication.

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According to the report, last year Bangladesh's army, navy, air force, Bangladesh Defence Command and Staff College, and the Rapid Action Battalion, came under cyber threat. These forces were subject to phishing attempts, with scammers using malware in an attempt to steal confidential information. The report said that Bangladesh's national portal regarding the Covid vaccine programme faced the most cyber-attacks. However, the report did not reveal whether these attacks managed to do any harm, or how much harm was done, or if any action had been taken against the criminals.

It went on to say that the impact of geopolitical challenges was also a challenge for Bangladesh's cyber world. The report said that barely had the world recovered from the global crisis caused by Covid, when the conflicts in Europe and the Middle East further increased threats to the cyber world. Those who are propagating the threats include state powers, hacker groups and activists of various ilk. The report was compiled for the digital security agency by Bangladesh government's Incident Response Team, known as BGD e-GOV CIRT. They identified certain unique cyber-attacks last year against Bangladesh government's financial, military, industrial, commercial, health, start-up and energy sectors. The report also highlighted software was being entered into various computers and networks, with attempts to block or steal data. The sources of these threats were mostly overseas.

Broadly speaking, it has been observed that this law has not come to any effective use against cyber-threats

While facts and figures concerning the use of the Digital Security Act have not been officially published, most cases filed under this act are politically centered or involving personal vendetta, according to records of various human rights organisations and research institutions. These cases have been lodged against political opponents, journalists, teachers and researchers, students and members of minority communities, accusing them of defamation or disrupting law and order, in order to halt them from expressing dissenting views or criticising the government or political leaders.

Broadly speaking, it has been observed that this law has not come to any effective use against cyber-threats. The main reason is that due to geopolitical reasons, on an international level, this law does cannot touch certain groups like anti-vaxxers and other state actors. There is no way to tackle such threats other than by global alliances, with coordinated and integrated action.

The argument that abolishing the Digital Security Act will lead to the spread of religious hatred, disrupt communal harmony and disrupt public order is absolutely baseless. After all, these offences are already defined as crimes in our penal code and the punishment for such offences have also been determined. Law minister Anisul Huq has given reassurance that the law will be amended, but has refused to remove two sections which the UN experts' recommended to repeal. One of these deals with hurting religious sentiment. He also said the other section, Section 21, will not be amended.

Section 21 deals with punishment for propaganda or campaign against the liberation war, the spirit of the liberation war, father of the nation, the national anthem or the national flag. These for the first time have been considered as crimes under the Digital Security Act and the root of this is the present government and Awami League politics. And so it is hard to reject the perception that the refusal to scrap or suspend this law is more political than for the sake of preventing digital crime. It indicates that the law has become a weapon to suppress dissent rather than protect the people from cyber-crimes or threats. There are no visible reasons against scrapping the law other than political motives.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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