Bangladesh’s plodding bureaucracy is in a sudden rush to pass two consequential legislative items on data protection and social media regulation that will have far-reaching consequences for how the country’s 170 million people use the internet. The sole reason for the government to fast-track the proposed regulations, according to activists and lawyers, is the upcoming 2023 elections.

The proposed Data Protection Act, 2022 and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms, 2021 are ostensibly touted as efforts to protect citizen information against American tech companies, but both draft regulations grant Bangladesh authorities sweeping powers to control everything on the Bangladeshi internet.

The proposed data protection law mandates that citizen data be stored within Bangladesh. Given Bangladesh’s history of egregious human rights violations, “the localization of the data within Bangladesh gives authorities broad powers to access people’s personal data without judicial oversight and without accountability for any violation of people’s right to privacy,” wrote Amnesty International in feedback to the proposed bill.

The tabling of this bill should be viewed in the context of the upcoming 2023 election and the harm it can cause, Minhaj Aman, a fact-checker and digital rights activist based in Dhaka, told me. The proposed bill grants indemnity to government authorities causing harm “out of good faith,” bestowing digital authoritarian powers for politicians presiding over Bangladesh’s “hybrid democracy.”

The proposed social media and OTT platform regulation bill, on the other hand, seeks to introduce traceability in end-to-end encrypted social and messaging apps, which the nonprofit organization Internet Society has called a stringent and overly broad regulation.

While a timeline of when these laws will be promulgated is unclear, Aman believes these laws would most likely come into force before Bangladesh national polls in December 2023. He says the government has a history of passing digital laws in the lead-up to elections, which makes it convenient for authorities to harass and curb political opposition, media, and civil society. 

In 2018, months before the national election, the Digital Security Act (DSA) was tabled, which was used by the ruling Awami League to restrict internet access in Rohingya refugee camps and restrict services such as Facebook messenger. Since January 2020, the DSA has been used by the ruling party to arrest over 200 journalists critical of the government.