Robi Safenet – the innocent start of a mass internet filtering campaign?

Robi – a major GSM provider in Bangladesh, recently introduced a new internet filtering “service” branded the “Robi Safenet”.

Robi has launched marketing promos for this service aiming at “child safety conscious” parents. Robi claims its Safenet service can effectively filter “harmful websites” e.g. porn sites, hacking sites, violent content, etc. Given the Muslim-majority country’s average parent’s conservative stance, this service is bound to be popular.

Going to the technical side, I personally have not used the service (yet), but I believe it works at their DNS level. I have reasons to believe that. As per Robi’s website, we need to visit from a Robi connection to set up this service.

Now, here is a problem. This mentioned website does not resolve from other ISPs. Which means Robi must be using their own DNS servers for resolving this hostname.

When a Robi subscriber obtains an IP from their DHCP server, it automatically returns a set of DNS servers along with that dynamic IP. My guess is, the magic here is done by the DNS server. When a subscriber blocks a specific (set of) website, the DNS server bluntly refuses to resolve the IP, or returns a warning page instead acknowledging the block. This seems quite simple and well-intentioned.

The catch here is – for Axiata, the power of controlling website access translates to money and monopoly. For us, a dark Orwellian future.

Robi is owned and operated by the Axiata Group of Malaysia. Axiata operates a number of GSM brands in different parts of the world (mostly Asia). Axiata has two GSM carriers in Bangladesh – Robi and Airtel.

Unlike a large part of the developed world, Bangladeshi carriers compete in a surprisingly open market. Almost all mobile phones are unlocked, and people buy sim cards of different operators (not phones). Despite this, we have already lost the Net Neutrality battle.

We know from several statistics that around 77.142 million Bangladeshis (half the population) use the internet. What the statistics do not tell us is that a majority of these 77 millions do not know the internet beyond Facebook, WhatsApp, and imo. The carriers and the websites are well aware of that, and they have partnered to offer their services to the 77 millions in form of discounted, monopolistic “internet packages”. In the past, we could simply choose a package size of our choice, and start off browsing the internet. Now our choices are much narrower. All the Telcos have “Facebook packs” and “WhatsApp packs” and “Viber Packs” and so on.

Most mobile operators offer Facebook and its Messenger for free through the “Free Basics” service.

There’s even more. Axiata (Airtel/Robi) has its own music streaming app where it does not charge any data for streaming. Sounds fair, right? right?

Parental Control is good. The internet is a scary place where kids need filtered access. But in a fragmented market like Bangladesh where Telco monopoly is largely unrestricted, I do not think the sole use of Robi Safenet will be at Parental Control, but rather “consumer control” and high-profile monopoly. How we use our internet should not be at the carrier’s control. This could be used for mass surveillance, monopolistic service promotions, and an Orwellian future for us all.

If this is where we are going, I would rather be happier with a scary internet than Robi’s version of “Safenet”.

Ashik Emon

Ashik Emon

Ashik Ishtiaque Emon is a Google-certified Web Performance Expert and LPI-recognized Linux System Administrator. He travels and reads a lot. Reach him at [email protected].

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