Do users really need those?
Social media users are seemingly sceptical of the government's move to introduce home-grown alternatives to Facebook, WhatsApp and other digital platforms.
They cited serious privacy and data security concerns regarding platforms developed locally when they cannot even fully trust foreign and well-established social media services.
Some said that they were unsure if "Jogajog", the government proposed alternative to Facebook, and "Alapon", the fill-in for WhatsApp, Viber and other messenger apps, would be any good at all or if they would get any traction in a market dominated by global software giants like Facebook, Tencent and Google.
They also questioned if they would get services as per their requirements.
Nadia Jahan, an executive of a marketing firm, said there was no reason why she would be willing to move to "Jogajog" from Facebook.
"I am perfectly okay with using Facebook and a localised platform does not make any sense to me. I also have friends from other countries with whom I connect on Facebook; should I expect them to shift to "Jogajog" as well?"
Rafid Shadman, a university student, mentioned his concerns about privacy and data security.
"At a time when we are sceptical even about Facebook harvesting our data, and others monitoring our activities on Facebook, I don't feel assured about local alternatives.
"I have no way of knowing that my data and privacy will not be breached and I don't think I will feel safe exercising my freedom of speech on state-owned social media platforms."
Rasel Alam, a shopkeeper in Chandpur, said he had heard about "Jogajog" and "Alapon" being in the pipeline but he was unsure of what to feel about them.
"It can be a good initiative if the local social media is more simplified and is offered in Bangla. We want to see local news and local stories more. I mostly watch clips of Bangla TV shows and music videos on Facebook. If the local alternatives are offered fully in Bangla, showcasing all local materials, I think we will find it more interesting than Facebook. Otherwise, I'm not sure," he said.
Fahim Mashroor, chief executive officer of popular job-hunting site Bdjobs, said it would be difficult to create value for these local apps when the majority of the users consider platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp their go-to social media platforms.
"… it would be hard for the new apps to form a broader user base," said Fahim.
While making the announcement a few weeks ago, ICT State Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak touted that entrepreneurs of the country would be able to create their own online marketplaces and groups for information, data and communication via "Jogajog" and "Alapon".
"Jogajog" is in its planning stage. The budget and the timeline for the project is yet to be approved by the planning ministry, said sources working closely with this project.
Subrata Kumar Roy, an official at the Controller of Certifying Authority (CCA), the government organisation in charge of developing the social media platforms, could not give a time frame as to when these might be available to the public.
Sources in the CCA say that the platforms would reduce dependence on foreign social media platforms, protect national and local data and help prop up the local IT sector.
Tarique M Barkatullah, project director at Bangladesh Government's e-Government Computer Incident Response Team, BGD e-GOV CIRT, said his team at CIRT was developing a prototype of "Alapon" from scratch alongside the CCA.
"We hope to have a working prototype ready in three months and then we will present it to the ICT division for consideration. The ICT division can then go forward with our or CCA's version of the platform," said Tarique.
He said they were exploring possibilities of integrating payment systems within "Alapon", like WeChat has done. "We may also partner with existing MFS [mobile financial services] if an independent integrated payment system proves too difficult to sustain."
EXPERTS ON THE FENCE
As of May 2021, the number of Facebook users in Bangladesh was 47.2 million, nearly 28 percent of the total population, according to NapoleonCat, a Poland-based social media management platform.
Other social media platforms including Instagram, WhatsApp and LinkedIn are also seeing an increasing user base in Bangladesh.
Experts believe that local platforms will gain little foothold in the country.
Fahim of Bdjobs said, "The government can play the role of a patron, but the initiative has to come from the private sector."
Asked whether people would actually move to these local platforms, Tarique of CIRT said, "If people are given access to a superior products, they will definitely switch."
Shantanu Majumder, associate professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Dhaka, said, "If the masses think of these initiatives to be a manifestation of 'big brother is watching you', they will not subscribe to it, and the government cannot force it on them.
"The market is wide open, let there be a level-playing field and the market will decide for itself," he said.
"I think these platforms can play a positive role when it comes to the proper dissemination of information across people of all backgrounds. It would also be undesirable if the government uses these platforms to protect its image. Using these platforms to generate pro-government propaganda would also decrease the possibility of these platforms being accepted in the market," he added.
NOT THE FIRST
Launch of local variants of popular social media platforms is not new in Bangladesh or the world.
The government had launched "Boithok", as an alternative to Zoom and Google Meets, which is being extensively beta tested in government virtual meetings.
"Boithok" is a repurposed white-label product but its future development is being done mostly in-house.
The government is expecting its roll out for all government offices by September of this year and to the public on the Victory Day.
China has been able to replace Facebook and WhatsApp with WeChat, made by Tencent in 2011, but that is largely credited to the Great Firewall which banned services of Facebook and Google.
However, providers of VPN services that can bypass the firewall have been doing good business in China.
Earlier this year, Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also proposed the creation of state-owned social media to "create opportunities for startups".
However, human rights groups criticised the move as a way to suppress political dissent.
State-owned messenger, streaming platforms and browsers are not an alien concept and several countries have implemented them for their citizens.
MORE ON THE WAY
Currently, the Bangladesh government has several other platforms on its agenda. Aspire To Innovate (a2i) programme has proposed the development of a local IPTV/OTT (over the top) platform to compete with Netflix and YouTube under the brand name "Dream Stream".
According to documents that The Daily Star has obtained, the plan is to develop the platform edutainment focused with options for uploading content of local creators. The business model will be similar to Netflix (subscription) and YouTube (Advertisement).
The CCA has also been working on a local search engine as well as a browser since early this year.
The feasibility studies for these projects are almost done and they are waiting for the policymakers' nod to enter the development stage.