How Bangladesh government agencies are suspected of taking down websites and Youtube channels of dissident Bangladeshis abroad.
Ten weeks ago, on December 8th 2020, Oliullah Noman, the executive editor of the newly established online Bengali news website, Amar Desh UK (amardesh.co.uk), received an email from its host DigitalOcean. It started friendly enough — “Hi there” — but its contents were far from it. The email was a notice stating that an article on the website was “the subject of a notification of claimed copyright infringement” under the US law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). DigitalOcean requested Amar Desh UK to take down the offending article from its website within three days or they “may disable access” to the website.
As soon as he saw this, Noman knew what this was about — a false complaint of copyright infringement deliberately designed to remove particular articles or stop the website functioning if they refused to do so.
He also strongly suspected that the Bangladesh government was behind it.
The UK-based online news website takes its name from the now-defunct Bangladeshi newspaper Amar Desh, a popular anti-Awami League government publication, which the authorities closed down in April 2013, four months after the paper published leaked Skype conversations involving the chair of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The contents of the Skype conversations were highly embarrassing for the government. The newspaper also became controversial for articles critical of so-called atheist bloggers and freethinkers. The Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman was arrested at the same time as the newspaper was closed, and only released from jail on bail in November 2016. He now lives outside the country.
Noman used to work as a journalist at Amar Desh in Bangladesh and had been involved in the December 2012 publication of the Skype conversations, but fearing for his safety, had travelled the next month to the United Kingdom where he successfully applied for asylum. In August 2020, with Mahmudur Rahman holding the titular position of editor, Noman launched the new online newspaper, amardesh.co.uk, which continued the newspaper’s highly critical journalism towards the current Bangladeshi government.
The news website went online on August 30th 2020, but within 12 hours the Bangladesh government censors had blocked it, preventing access to readers inside the country. It was however still available outside Bangladesh, or by those using virtual private networks (VPN) within the country.
On seeing the email from DigitalOcean, there were two reasons why Noman knew this was a false and malicious copyright complaint.
The first was because the article, for which copyright was being claimed, had been written specifically for the website by Mahmudur Rahman himself — the former editor of Amar Desh in Bangladesh and now the editor of the new UK-based Amar Desh website. It was simply impossible that amardesh.co.uk had breached another person’s copyright over this article.
The second reason was that this was not the first false copyright claim Noman had received. Since the website went live on August 30 2020, he has received false complaints about nine different articles — the first one being just five days after the website’s launch. And many of them involved editorials written by Mahmudur Rahman.
These multiple complaints required the establishment of nine fake websites and nine fake email addresses and this made Noman pretty certain that this had to be the concerted work of a Bangladesh government agency — which had already blocked the website in Bangladesh — and not just individual government supporters who wanted to thwart Amar Desh Uk.
The modus operandi of all these false complaints was the same. A spoof website is created, with the principal purpose of making false copyright claims. This new website then republishes an article, already published on the Amar Desh UK website, with a date of publication prior to Amar Desh UK website’s publication date. Giving a prior date gives the appearance that the article published on this spoof site was the original article, and the original article published by the Amar Desh UK website as supposedly being the one which is illegally copied. A complaint is then made to the company that hosts the Amar Desh website claiming that Amar Desh had breached its copyright by republishing the particular article. The hosting company then writes to Noman asking him to remove the original article under threat of disconnection.
While Noman knew that the complaints were fake as he had himself commissioned and posted the articles — he found it difficult to understand why the hosting company did not themselves see that they were fraudulent. Addresses contained in the complaints were often incomplete, and the phone numbers were not real. In addition, the dates given on the complainant spoof websites, when the articles were supposedly published, were often before those websites had actually been created.
One complaint, received by Noman on September 14th 2020, claimed that an article published on amardesh.co.uk that month had first been published on the website hrsohag.com ten years earlier on June 9th 2010 — though this was not possible as hrsohag.com was only created in July 2020.
And another complaint, received on October 23rd, claimed that an article, also published on amardesh.co.uk earlier that month, was supposedly published on syedfarhan.xyz on January 27th 2019 — even though this website was set up on over a year later on May 3rd 2020. In addition, both of these articles referred to matters that only happened after the articles were supposedly published on the complainant websites.
In another complaint, the complainant described himself as, “I’m Siddhant Nandan Saaho, USA blogger, Anchor, educational researcher, Video content Creator and also FBI Agent.” He claimed that his “company name” was Federal Bureau of Investigation, and that he “publishes all of my video ideas, how to DIY tutorial, personal thoughts” on a website whose copyright was infringed by amardesh.co,uk. Unsurprisingly, the telephone number is fake.
Noman responded to each one of the complaints informing the hosting company that they were false — pointing out these inconsistencies — but on each occasion the host said that it would only consider the response to the complaint after the article was taken down, or otherwise it would stop providing its hosting service. As Noman, on principle, did not want to remove his own original articles from the website subject to false copyright claims, his only other option was to change the hosting company. Thus, although amardesh.co.uk started in August 2020 with GoDaddy as the host, it then moved to a different company, Hetzner, at the end of September and then in October moved to Cloudflare and finally in November changed to DigitalOcean.
The final complaint
It was after receiving the most recent complaint via Digital Ocean on December 8th Noman decided to take a different tack. He did not want to change hosts repeatedly. Instead, he decided to challenge the whole process. After DigitalOcean failed to respond positively to Amar Desh’s response, Noman did not change the hosting company but allowed DigitalOcean to suspend its service. Amar Desh UK is now offline and has now initiated legal action against DigitalOcean.
This final complaint sent by DigitalOcean was particularly odd as the complainant called himself “Shahid Uddin Khan Khan”. This name is strikingly close to the retired army officer, Shahid Uddin Khan, now living in the UK who in recent months has increasingly become a serious thorn in the side of the government. And while the real Shahid Uddin Khan had set up an organisation Astha Now and a website with the address asthanow.com, the fake “Shahid Uddin Khan Khan” had set up a website with a very similar name, “asthanow.net”, where he also claimed to have first published the article by Mahmudur Rahman. It was clear that this particular website was seeking to pretend that it belonged to the London based dissident.
There were other tell-tale signs that this complaint was fake. Although the webpage on which asthanow.net posted the article was created on November 10th, it’s source code shows that the page was modified on December 2nd, the day after the original article on Amar Desh UK was published — and was not modified again. This suggests that the modification on December 2nd may well have involved the copying and pasting of the original amardesh article onto its page.
We asked Digital Ocean to comment on the claims made above, but have not received any response.
Amar Desh is not the only dissident media by expatriate journalists or commentators that faced copyright attacks.
In September 2010, the journalist Kanak Sarwar who worked in Bangladesh as a reporter and presenter at the television station ETV, started a YouTube channel called Kanak Sarwar Live. In March 2015, he was arrested — along with the owner of ETV — over the station broadcasting a speech of the opposition leader, Tarique Rahman. Soon after he got bail in November 2015, he was advised to leave the country and moved to the United States, which is where he is now based. From about 2018, he started to post more videos on his YouTube channel, much of which were critical of the current Bangladeshi government. By July 2020, he had about 185 videos on his channel.
However, on July 2nd 2010, YouTube wrote to Sarwar informing him that a website Afreen-Music claimed to hold copyright over one of his videos. In YouTube’s policy language this is known as a “strike” and causes removal of the contested video — get three of them and you no longer are allowed access to your account. Over the next week, Kanak received a total of 16 strikes involving 16 videos. He was blocked from using his channel.
Like Noman at Amar Desh, Sarwar knew these were false claims. Either he had made the videos himself or they were videos of his old ETV programmes for which he says he held the copyright. Even if there was some dispute about whether Sarwar held the copyright of his old ETV shows, Afreen-Music certainly held no copyright over any of the videos — and ETV itself was not claiming copyright.
It turns out that a similar process had been used against Sarwar as deployed against Amar Desh. The website Afreen-Music was established on May 28th 2020. This new website uploaded 16 videos that had originally been posted on Sarwar’s YouTube. The website then claimed in a series of complaints to YouTube that it owned the copyright to these videos.
Again, it was easy to identify these claims as fake. Afreen Music’s website had dated the videos as having been published on its website in June and July 2010 — ten years before the website had been created. In addition, many of the videos dealt with subjects that only happened after 2010 and most of the videos involved selfie-video footage clearly taken by Sarwar himself.
Like Noman at Amar Desh, Sarwar assumed that this was the work of Bangladesh government agencies — who had already arrested and forced him to leave the country.
The Afreen-Music website – which now contains no content – was not just used to close down the YouTube channel belonging to Kanak Sarwar — but other expatriate Bangladeshis who published videos critical of the Bangladesh government. The YouTube channel of M Rahman Masum was subject to seven copyright complaints, “strikes”, which resulted in it being blocked. Masum appealed and five strikes were removed so that he now has access to his channel. The website also made complaints against Mina Farah, an outspoken government critic.
Sarwar has now opened a new YouTube channel (KanaksarwarNews) where he posts his videos which in recent months have become very popular. He escapes false copyright claims on the new channel by publishing his videos “live” or “as live”.
We asked Youtube to comment on the claims made above, but have not received any response.
Who is behind the copyright claims?
There is good reason to suspect — as do Noman, Sarwar and Masum — that all these fake copyright complaints, designed to remove articles and videos and to take down websites and YouTube channels belonging to Bangladesh government critics, are orchestrated under the direction of the Bangladeshi intelligence agencies.
The Bangladesh government has taken significant steps over recent years to silence critical voices within the country. It has blocked hundreds of websites preventing those inside Bangladesh accessing them and it has arrested dozens of journalists and hundreds of social media commentators because of their critical commentary. Locally, television channels are highly restricted and print media significantly silenced.
Netra News has previously uncovered how the country’s military intelligence agency DGFI employs civilian contractors to make, amongst other things, fake copyright claims in order to get Facebook to block the pages of critics of the government, both inside and outside the country. It reported in a recent article that DGFI’s military intelligence agency’s Public Relations Monitoring Cell (PRMC) employs civilian contractors to undertake this work:
“There is clear [division of labour] between teams,” one of the whistleblowers, who works as a PRMC troll, told Netra News for that article. “This team does copyright, this team does violence, this team does comments, this team does accounts disabling.”
The Netra News report went onto quote whistle-blowers saying that these civilian contractors:
“maintain thousands of fake pages and accounts on Facebook, receive daily instructions on spreadsheets containing URLs of specific posts, pages and profiles to target. Most of these targets are critical journalists, political dissidents, and opposition figures.”
On the basis of this report, Facebook undertook its own investigation and removed the accounts belonging to two civilian contractors working for DGFI – Don’s Team and the Crime Research and Analysis Foundation (Craf). A Facebook press release noted:
“Don’s Team and CRAF collaborated to report people on Facebook for fictitious violations of our Community Standards, including alleged impersonation, intellectual property infringements, nudity and terrorism.“
DGFI’s civilian contractors seem to be using the same or similar techniques targeting website hosting companies and YouTube who themselves have become unwitting partners in the censorship of journalism belonging to critics of the Bangladesh government.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.
Clarification: The caption involving the image of the hrsohag.com website article has been edited to clarify that this image was sent to amardesh.co.uk by its website host as part of the original copyright complaint.