She was mildly self conscious when I asked to photograph her, but a smile soon spread over her face. The telephone had connected her to her husband, a worker in Singapore. Salma, a woman in a village near Sonargaon in Bangladesh, had recently learnt to use the village mobile telephone, and it had transformed her life. Had this been where the story ended, it would have been a simple affair with a happy ending. Perhaps for Salma, it wasn’t significant that the technology that allowed her access to her husband, was one of many that allowed people in distant lands to tap her call, to add her to a database, to classify her as yet another consumer of products or a source of cheap labour for electronic sweatshops. For many others however, the wealth of new opportunities provided by globalisation, merely represents a wider net for global exploitation.
There are now many Salmas, and on the 14th August 2003, Grameen’s subscriber base reached a million. Greater than the total subscriber base of the government land lines. ISPs too pop up in many street corners, and though Internet telephony (VOIP) is illegal here, the service is openly advertised in convenience stores. In between the tangled wires on every street pole in Dhaka is the attractive advert: broadband, 24 hours, only taka 1000 per month. That’s about US $ 17. Not a bad price for broadband, until you realise that the definitions differ. The bandwidth on offer is 1K/sec, and breaks every time a storm, or a competing ISP cuts the cable, or when electricity fails (generally 2-3 times a day) at any of the relay nodes. No wonder many users call it ‘fraud band’.
The VSAT on our rooftop delivers 512K connectivity. A respectable speed, except that we expect to have 200 dialup customers, another 200 leased line clients, and maybe a few smaller ISPs running Voice over IP (VOIP) services and the ‘broadband connections’ using that bandwidth. That is the only way we can pay for the US $ 3500/month for staying connected. Plus a $ 3,500/64 KB/year license fee. An average user in the west would pay around 20 – 30 Euro for comparable access.
Even getting here hasn’t been easy. In 1994, when we setup Bangladesh’s first email service, we were using off-line email. Our server, a 286, and just one telephone line which we used for voice, fax and email, provided email connectivity to the world bank, UNICEF, major universities, and several organisations that are now ISPs. Since then the Net has been both a boon and a bane. It has been our lifeline to the rest of the world, and it has been the area where the government has attacked us the hardest. On the 27th of February 2001, we setup the country’s first human rights portal www.banglarights.net. The government promptly closed down all our telephone lines the next day. It took a lot of protests, to get the local lines back, but even now, we cannot make an international telephone call. Not using the government lines anyway. However, our VSAT on the rooftop, allows us an access that the government will not be able to stop simply by pulling a plug somewhere. Our e-newsletter reaches a carefully targeted 5000 worldwide, and a note saying the government was getting heavy would be immediately followed by a string of protests from fairly
influential organisations worldwide. So we walk a fine line, and continue to be subversive. On the other hand, the government’s lack of knowledge can be used (and abused) to find ways round the system. The import of the satellite phone by the BBC, which connects through Inmarsat, was allowed by the Bangladesh Telephone and Regulatory Council (BTRC), on condition that it not be used to make calls outside the country!
For the majority world, education offers the most effective route to take advantage of the globalisation juggernaut. And it is here, that the technological opportunities and the networking that accompanies globalisation, can be best utilized. Interestingly, the role models that seem to have worked best are those developed in the south, and it is only when the asymmetrical flow of information, which flows essentially from north to south, is replaced by south-south movement, that we will begin to turn the tide around. We started using the Net for education fairly early on, but activism and survival have really been the main driving forces behind our relationship with new media. An incidence of rape at a local university was being hushed up, and it was our presence on the Net that forced the establishment to arrange an investigation. The rapists got off with mild punishment, but it was the first time they had been challenged, and it has changed campus dynamics. It was our fragile network that allowed us to contact legal help groups and other activist organizations, when Taslima Nasreen, the feminist writer was under threat. It was the Net that kept us relevant.
The most interesting shifts have been in the area of media. With mainstream media coming under increasing restrictions, and the cost of publishing soaring, media activists have been taking to the Net to get their ideas across. A whole set of blogs, newsletters, opinion forums and activist sites have sprung up. Apart from providing an alternative space where points of view not palatable to mainstream media can be aired, these Net spaces have also become meeting grounds for the diaspora, who have until now felt excluded from the development process, and numerous archives abound providing alternative information sources.
The main struggle however remains between activists trying to make full use of a vibrant media, and a skeptical, fossilized and generally corrupt bureaucracy, that is deeply suspicious of what this media might do. It is reminiscent of the first time Bangladesh rejected the fibre optic cable that went along the Bay of Bengal, since the information minister was scared that ‘state secrets’ would be leaked out. A new rule in Bangladesh prevents CDs from being sent overseas, while the same data sent through the Net can be sent legally.
Our journalism school is trying to develop on-line learning modules, and we are hoping to start up a regional centre for investigative journalism that will rely heavily on new media for its success. There are interesting political implications too. Our latest plans for setting up a ‘public accountability site’, promises to be the most problematic for the establishment. The idea is to setup kiosks in poor neighbourhoods, which will provide information relevant to the locality that they can use to determine how public funds and other resources are being used. The government has promised such transparency, and we want to hold them to it. But when the public begins to sense how their resources are used, the trouble will start, and those who made the ministerial speeches, will be the first to shut us down. That too is a fight that we need to win, and we’ll use new media as our primary tool.
Presented at the World Summit on Information Society. Geneva. 9th December 2003