As this article is being written, the government is yet to move on whether or not Facebook facilities will be suspended every day for six hours from midnight till the morning. The expectation on the part of citizens is that such a regressive move will not be made, that an enlightened view of conditions will stay the hand of the authorities. The reason that is being given out in defense of a suspension of Facebook for six hours every day is that it will help the young, especially students, focus on their studies. That, by extension, would mean that if Facebook is suspended, a clearly qualitative change will come about in the nation’s education system.
Well, first things first. There can be no denying that Bangladesh’s education system, ever since traditional methods of classroom instruction in schools and colleges and overall examinations were dispensed with, has been in a state of chaos. To be sure, the minister for education has convinced himself and has convinced many others in the power structure that the current system of education, based as it is on GPAs and Golden GPAs, is turning out a generation of young Bengalis ready and willing to tackle head-on the challenges the outside world throws their way every livelong day. The minister is wrong and those who subscribe to his opinion are wrong too.
The GPA method of instruction is certainly flooding the lives of the young with scores aplenty. But are the young being educated at all? There are the many instances of students emerging from colleges with fantastic scores in their final examinations but eventually failing to make it to university. When, not long ago, only four students were able to make it into the English Department of Dhaka University, much hue and cry, especially from the education authorities, came forth.
It was made to seem that the fault in not more students qualifying for admission in the department lay with the department itself and not with the students. To now suggest, therefore, that Facebook activities should be restricted by government fiat for six hours every day really ignores the problem. And the problem, let us be clear, is not Facebook. It is the kind of education being imparted to the young.
That said, there now arises the question of citizens’ right to information. Suspending Facebook for six hours on the pretext of having the young concentrate on their studies and, thereby, keeping an entire country hostage to arbitrary administrative behavior can only weaken the pluralistic edifice we have been trying to build in this country. We do not happen to be under military rule or authoritarian governance. A state of emergency has not been imposed on the country. There are no signs of profound social disorder, of the kind that could threaten our everyday existence. Must then Facebook come under the hammer?
And who will reassure us that once Facebook goes, for six hours every day, that it will then not be the turn of mobile phone text messages to be suspended for an equal length of time? Perhaps some bright mind in the corridors of government could then suggest that along with Facebook and SMS, all e-mail services across the country should also be put on hold for six hours? The dangers, you see, are there.
Yes, we do realize there are other problems, notably those related to terrorist activity in relation to their use of technology. But that ought to be overcome through a careful, smart, and swift operation of intelligence on the part of government. You do not have to shut down a whole country to catch criminals or keep them from engaging in their nefarious activities.
Now observe quite another side of the issue. If a ban is clamped on Facebook for six hours, what happens to those people, none of whom might be students preparing for examinations, who need to communicate with the outside world --- their friends, their business partners, their children and families abroad --- during that length of time? One would not like to go for a cliché again, but sometimes there is hardly any choice. What happens to a citizen’s democratic right to proffer and receive information through the Internet if and when such wrong moves as suspending Facebook are put into implementation mode?
Such are the questions and worries that assail us as the authorities toy with the idea of putting Facebook out of circulation for six hours. At a time when we are being informed of the advantages of technology, of the digitalization of our lives, to propose that Facebook or other social media come under the watch of Big Brother in a democratic environment goes against our aspirations of coming level with the world around us. In an era when business transactions are handled through Facebook, how much do the authorities think we will lose in economic terms if and when a ban, however limited in time, is imposed on a working social media?
Perhaps by the time you have read this piece through, the authorities will have stepped back from any move to tame or tamper with Facebook? Perhaps…
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age