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Say no to cyber-nanny state in Sri Lanka


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Sri Lanka’s second social media blocking was enforced within hours of the multiple suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday; it lasted for nine days from 21 to 30 April 2019 (there was a brief recurrence on the night of 5/6 May that lasted around 12 hours)

When a small but determined group of extremists weaponised airplanes, automobiles and other everyday objects in recent years, modern societies didn’t stop or restrict using these inventions. Instead, they stepped up vigilance and safety precautions.

A similar response is needed to deal with some users weaponising social media like Facebook, trying to turn these conversational platforms into toxic spaces filled with hate and deception. Knee-jerk regulatory reactions like completely blocking social media for prolonged periods of time do not solve the problem – these actions can often make matters worse.

Thus, I disagree with the case for social media blocking in Sri Lanka presented by Minister of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology Ajith P. Perera and business writer Chanuka Wattegama (‘Social media could be our egregious enemy, sometimes,’ Daily FT, 26 April).

I know both writers as moderates who can appreciate the complexity of such issues. Their views therefore merit a considered response. 

Sri Lanka’s second social media blocking was enforced within hours of the multiple suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday; it lasted for nine days from 21 to 30 April 2019 (there was a brief recurrence on the night of 5/6 May that lasted around 12 hours). 

In physical terms, this is how it happened. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL) that now comes under the Ministry of Defence ordered all five internet service providers (ISPs) to block subscribers’ access to Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, SnapChat, Viber, WhatsApp and YouTube. It is not clear whether there was a written order, but as far as we know, the companies complied without question. 

 

If we agree for a moment that both blockings were initially warranted for ensuring law and order, they quickly outlived their justification within 48 to 72 hours. Sustaining them for several days longer was purely a political decision, probably to contain severe criticism of the President and Government who, in the view of many, did too little, too late?

 

Contrary to popular perception also reflected in misleading media reporting, it was never a social media ban: banning anything requires a specific gazette notice. The official reason for this blocking was to contain the spread of misinformation in the aftermath of the atrocity.  

It is doubtful whether this objective was achieved because scary rumours and bizarre conspiracy theories continued to circulate while the block was on. 

Over a year ago, when Sri Lanka had its first social media blocking from 8 to 15 March 2018, the official reason was stemming hate speech. That decision was linked to anti-Muslim violence in the Eastern and Central Provinces: the Government claimed that some had spread incitement to violence through social media. 

On both occasions, the specific body of evidence used for threat assessment and decision making was not made public. (It is believed that the President’s Office acted under advice from the intelligence services.) As such, those outside Government have no way of independently verifying whether the decisions to block were made on a sound basis.

Admittedly, volatile situations – such as those arising in early March 2018 and late April 2019 – justified erring on the side of caution. My objection, therefore, is not so much with the enforcing of such blockings per se, but about needlessly prolonging them. 

If we agree for a moment that both blockings were initially warranted for ensuring law and order, they quickly outlived their justification within 48 to 72 hours. Sustaining them for several days longer was purely a political decision, probably to contain severe criticism of the President and Government who, in the view of many, did too little, too late?

 

Freedom of expression

That, in turn, raises concerns whether this blunt regulatory instrument is being used to suppress citizens’ right to freedom of expression more than to protect them from harm.

Of course, freedom of expression is not an absolute right – international human rights law has recognised some specific limitations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international treaty which came into effect in 1976 and which Sri Lanka has ratified, has narrowly defined the allowable restrictions. All must pass a three-part test of legality, legitimacy and proportionality.

In the case of Sri Lanka’s two social media blockings, legality is in question: there is no specific law providing for internet content regulation, making these arbitrary executive actions. (The 21 April blocking was ordered before Emergency Regulations were declared.) 

 

Just as we have clear procedures for declaring, maintaining and ending physical curfews under the law (Public Security Ordinance), it is useful to evolve legally-mandated procedures for ‘digital curfews’ for threat assessment, decision making and implementing very limited scope internet restrictions. Having clear guidelines and proper systems would reduce executive overreach. Balancing our freedoms and security is indeed possible with the right approach

 

The legitimacy is derived from a few specific aims that ICCPR says merit restrictions. One of them is the ‘protection of national security or of public order’, which applies in this case – at least initially. 

Data analyses have shown that Sri Lanka’s social media blockings did not lead to a significant reduction of social media user activity among those peddling hate speech (in March 2018) or disinformation last month. Those determined to get online found workarounds like proxy servers to access blocked services

Finally, to assess proportionality, we must ask: were the social media blocks the ‘least restrictive means required to achieve the purported aim’? Not really. Especially in the aftermath of Easter Sunday attacks, the Government failed to provide a steady flow of credible official information and explanations. In the resulting void, disinformation gained momentum.

In any case, our social media blockings have been inefficient and ineffective. Data analyses by researchers such as Sanjana Hattotuwa and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne have shown that these restrictions did not lead to a significant reduction of social media user activity among those peddling hate speech (in March 2018) or disinformation last month. Those determined to get online found workarounds like proxy servers to access blocked services. 

 

Facebook-bashers

In their article, Perera and Wattegama have cited some American commentators who applauded the Lankan Government’s action.

One of them is Kara Swisher, a technology journalist who, one year ago, called social media giants “digital arms dealers of the modern age”. Writing an op-ed in The New York Times on 22 April, she noted, “While social media had once been credited with helping foster democracy in places like Sri Lanka, it is now blamed for an increase in religious hatred.” 

She also argued, “Social media has blown the lids off controls that have kept society in check. These platforms give voice to everyone, but some of those voices are false or, worse, malevolent, and the companies continue to struggle with how to deal with them.” (Full text: https://nyti.ms/2IB1tM3)

American commentators obsessed with Facebook’s growing global power are clearly too biased to offer us any measured opinions, still less policy advice. They certainly shouldn’t be recommending or applauding regulatory actions in countries like Sri Lanka which have their own complex socio-political realities. And our policymakers need to be very careful when citing such partisan views in local policy discussions. 

 

Were the social media blocks the ‘least restrictive means required to achieve the purported aim’? Not really. Especially in the aftermath of Easter Sunday attacks, the Government failed to provide a steady flow of credible official information and explanations. In the resulting void, disinformation gained momentum. In any case, our social media blockings have been inefficient and ineffective

 

With 2.38 billion monthly active users by 31 March this year, Facebook is global in reach but how each society uses the platform varies, and this local context matters a great deal. 

In Sri Lanka where most of our mainstream media has been politically or ideologically captured – meaning they no longer serve the public interest but vested interests – social media represent the last free space where citizens can share information, express views, and demand Government accountability. 

It was also the primary space where citizens resisted when the Head of State serially violated the Constitution, plunging the country into a deep crisis six months ago. 

Within hours of the illegal transfer of political power on 26 October 2018 evening, all State media and most private media were aligned on the side of the illegitimate Government. Ousted politicians and outraged citizens alike mounted their peaceful resistance mostly through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms. The hashtag #CoupLK started trending by October 27 morning.

As I speculated in an interview with Al Jazeera TV network last week, imagine #CoupLK unfolding without us having access to social media: the power grab might well have succeeded! 

Can Americans, whose First Amendment protects basic freedoms including freedom of speech and freedom of the press, fully appreciate our kind of predicament? For us, I would argue, even an imperfect Facebook is better than no Facebook!

 

Cyber-nanny state?

ICT think-tank LIRNEasia’s data scientist and writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne echoed a similar view in a recent essay published by Slate.com, where he said: “In a country with such tight Government controls on traditional media, social media is more of a boon than Western commentators would assume.”

Wijeratne pointed out other pitfalls of a haphazardly enforced social media blocking. “People also fail to understand blocks can be quite easily circumvented with virtual private networks. Innocent people—who may be unaware of the security risks—search Google for ‘VPN’ and download the first thing they see, opening their devices and network traffic up for all kinds of nefarious third parties. The block also sends the actual racists and hate speech-mongers underground. Whereas once we could see some tip to the iceberg, now it stays underwater, propagating across networks that are far more difficult to examine—WhatsApp and SMS, for instance. If more people start using Signal or Telegram, we might as well forget the whole thing altogether.” (Full text at: http://bit.ly/2IWEpaO) 

 

In Sri Lanka where most of our mainstream media has been politically or ideologically captured – meaning they no longer serve the public interest but vested interests – social media represent the last free space where citizens can share information, express views, and demand Government accountability. It was also the primary space where citizens resisted when the Head of State serially violated the Constitution, plunging the country into a deep crisis six months ago

 

None of this is to deny that there is hate speech, disinformation, body shaming, misogynist content, cyber bullying and other negatives flowing through social media. But blanket blockings or rigid regulations are NOT the solution to any of these problems, all of which are found elsewhere in society too. If anything, social media acts as a mirror providing a composite reflection of our divided and troubled society… 

As a democracy committed to protecting human freedoms and pluralism, we can do better than simplistic denials or crude blockings. 

We must find the right mix of regulation, civic education and digital literacy promotion to tackle these issues. We can learn from other democracies that have faced the same challenges to see what acceptable trade-offs they have settled for. 

The bottom-line: we don’t need an overbearing executive to tell us what we citizens can say or do online. Whatever our politics and other labels, let us resist the rise of a cyber-nanny state in Sri Lanka.

 

Be prepared

Finally, what can governments do to cope with tensed and volatile moments where emotionally-charged online communications could spill over into offline disturbances, possibly even violence?

Firstly, enforce existing laws without fear or favour. This can deter many peddlers of hatred or disinformation. 

Secondly, have an open debate – involving not just the state but civil society, IT industry and technical community – on how emergency situations are to be handled in terms of cyberspace. 

Sri Lanka needs a clear legal and regulatory framework, as well as implementation procedures, to be applied in exceptional situations where a very temporary internet restriction may be warranted. 

Social media blockings can be seen as a countrywide ‘digital curfew’ – where the cyber activity of citizens is restricted by Government for a specific period of time, in the public interest. 

Just as we have clear procedures for declaring, maintaining and ending physical curfews under the law (Public Security Ordinance), it is useful to evolve legally-mandated procedures for ‘digital curfews’ for threat assessment, decision making and implementing very limited scope internet restrictions. 

Having clear guidelines and proper systems would reduce executive overreach. Balancing our freedoms and security is indeed possible with the right approach.

Pix by Ruwan Walpola

(Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and critiquing information society for over 25 years. He is an Internet Governance Fellow of the IG Academy in Germany. He tweets from @NalakaG)


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