Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week: Bangladesh moves toward net neutrality while Pakistan threatens to ban China’s TikTok, regional coronavirus cases surge past 1.8 million, and a government airstrike in Afghanistan kills civilians.
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Why Is South Asia Pushing Back Against Social Media?
Bangladesh’s telecommunications regulator quietly announced last week it would prohibit so-called zero rating of social media apps, a process in which cellular firms provide free internet for the use of particular apps. The move is significant because it represents a victory for net neutrality—the principle by which internet providers must not regulate bandwidth to favor one company over another. (Without net neutrality, your internet provider could strike up a high-speed deal with Netflix, while slowing down a competitor such as Hulu.)
Strangely, as the website Medianama reports, Bangladesh’s decision did not explicitly mention net neutrality, instead focusing on how zero rating was “used by dishonest persons to carry out unnecessary criminal activities” and “creating unhealthy competition in the market.”
A blow for Facebook. Bangladesh’s decision will hurt Facebook most of all by shutting down its Free Basics program, which offered free internet to access Facebook and WhatsApp through a network of local partnerships. Other than India, which banned Free Basics in 2016, most other South Asian countries have yet to put net neutrality regulations in place. Users of the program in Bangladesh will now have to pay regular internet costs to access Facebook, likely reducing the number of hours spent on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
The larger question is why Bangladesh acted as it did, especially during a pandemic. One reason could be that Facebook has dwarfed other local e-commerce platforms in Bangladesh. According to a report in Rest of World, a new technology website, Facebook is responsible for about 80 percent of internet commerce.
Islamabad’s censorship. Meanwhile in Pakistan, the national telecoms regulator has issued a “final warning” over explicit content on the video app TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance. India banned TikTok last month, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps, in a move that was widely seen as retaliation for China’s incursions into its territory. Pakistan is a close ally of China’s, making its move more surprising, especially as TikTok comes under fire from other countries over security concerns.
Bumbling motivations. The strange thing about the recent spate of technology policy decisions in South Asia is that countries seem to be making the right decisions—but for the wrong reasons. Pakistan’s move to warn TikTok is essentially a game of whack-a-mole. If internet users want to find racy content, there is no shortage of ways to access it.
India’s decision to ban Chinese apps was motivated by nationalism, but the cybersecurity concerns posed by Chinese software and hardware should have been a larger national issue years ago. And in Bangladesh, the move to curb zero rating without explicitly championing net neutrality suggests a decision based on domestic pressure, not a considered move regarding the ethics around freedom on the internet.
When it comes to net neutrality, India has emerged as a regional leader of sorts, given its high-profile 2016 decision to stop Facebook from launching Free Basics and a 2017 Supreme Court decision enshrining privacy as a fundamental right. But there are several pockmarks on this reputation, not least the fact that New Delhi administered the world’s longest internet shutdown in Kashmir last August.
Ultimately, as countries realize the value and importance of their citizens’ digital data, they will put in place more measures to safeguard them from other countries. The sooner the better—as long as those moves are thorough, coordinated, transparent, properly debated and disseminated, and followed up by further consistent regulation. But civil society will still have to fight for democratic safeguards.
What We’re Following
The coronavirus crisis. South Asia now has more than 1.8 million known cases of the coronavirus. India has recorded more than two-thirds of those, with 1.28 million cases, and its total number is doubling every 20 days or so. The incidence of new cases in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan has begun to slow down, but that could also be because those countries have slowed down testing. It remains somewhat of a mystery why South Asia hasn’t recorded more than 40,000 deaths so far, but experts suggest that a large number are not accounted for.
Afghan attack draws criticism. An Afghan government airstrike against the Taliban killed 45 people, including civilians, on Wednesday. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad criticized the move, pointing out that children were among the victims. Talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have yet to begin, amid continued violence and disagreements over the release of prisoners.
Pakistani journalist freed. A top Pakistani journalist and government critic has been released by his abductors after being held in captivity for 12 hours. Matiullah Jan, 51, was picking up his wife from work when he was abducted. Jan has in the past criticized the Army for its outsized role in politics. As Michael Kugelman writes in Foreign Policy, “Jan’s brief disappearance comes at a moment when Islamabad is stepping up efforts to stifle dissent, thereby exposing the fragility of democracy in a nation still struggling to shake off the legacy of military rule.”
Nepal opens up. Kathmandu is planning to allow regular international flights starting on Aug. 17, about four months after shutting down foreign travel because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nepal’s economy is heavily dependent on international tourism, and Kathmandu’s airport is its only international airport. Just this week, the country ended its lockdown after 120 days, citing a decline in the number of coronavirus cases.
Modi’s speech. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the keynote address at the U.S.-India Business Council’s annual India Ideas Summit on Wednesday. Modi argued for stronger domestic markets, after making the concession that countries had become too obsessed with market forces. “Ease of living is as important as ease of business,” he said.
“Recent experience has taught us that the global economy has been too focused on efficiency and optimization. Efficiency is a good thing. But on the way we forgot to focus on something equally important: resilience against external shocks. It has taken a global pandemic to remind us how important resilience is.”[The full speech is available here.]
Question of the Week
As a way to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India is planning to set up a solar power park in a neighboring country. Which one?
B) Sri Lanka
C) The Maldives
Scroll down for the answer.
Don’t Watch This
What do people watch most on Netflix? The answer to this question has long been a mystery, in large part because the streaming service does not release its data to the public or to ratings agencies. Last week, however, Netflix disclosed the 10 most-watched original movies on its platform in its quarterly financial results, according to Bloomberg. The list includes some predictable titles such as Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock, and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
But the surprise number 1 is Extraction, an action thriller released last April starring Chris Hemsworth. According to Netflix, a record 99 million people have watched the movie on its platform. Extraction is set mostly in Bangladesh, which is why it’s of interest to this newsletter. But as a recent review in the Economist pointed out—and I felt the same—the directors don’t seem to care much for nuance:
“Bar a few details—such as the green auto rickshaws which whiz down every road—the fictional Dhaka bears little resemblance to its real-life counterpart. The gangsters’ slum lair is improbably spacious, and when the characters’ fighting tears through flats, their occupants are listening to out-of-date Bollywood music and wearing saris tied in an Indian fashion. Only a few of the actors playing Bangladeshis, none of whom actually hail from Bangladesh, are able to speak Bangla convincingly. ‘It’s like watching a film set in London, about Londoners, but all the characters sound French,’ grimaces one disappointed Dhakaite.”
And the Answer Is…
B) Sri Lanka.
As the Indian newspaper Mint reports, citing government sources, India’s largest power generation utility, NTPC Limited, is working on plans for a solar park in Sri Lanka. The move comes after NTPC’s plan to build a coal plant there was scrapped.
That’s it for this week.