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TRC to lift social media ban on Friday

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 14 March 2018 00:00


  • FB did not respond fast enough when concerns were raised earlier 
  • FB regional heads arriving in Sri Lanka to meet with authorities 
  • New monitoring body to be set up to monitor social media platforms

By Chathuri Dissanayake

A beleaguered Telecom Minister yesterday sought to bring clarity over the decision to enforce the social media firewall, giving assurances of lifting the ban by Friday with plans to set up a new regulatory body to monitor the platforms to address shortcomings on the Government’s part in handling new media. 

Stressing that the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) which issued the directive to impose the firewall was not under his purview, Minister Harin Fernando claimed that his job was to carry out the instructions issued by the regulator. 

“Everyone is blaming me, but the TRC is not under my purview. The Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure is only responsible for the operation side of telecommunications,” explained Minister Fernando. 

Despite falling outside of his subject area, the Minister has been in communication with social media giant Facebook to discuss the concerns of the Government and devise a way forward. 

The TRC, which is under President Maithripala Sirisena’s purview, last Tuesday issued a directive to all telecom companies to block access to a number of social media apps including Facebook in a bid to control attacks by extremist groups against the Muslim community in the Kandy District. 

The Government claimed that Facebook has been a key space for extremists to organise and recruit supporters. Live footage of attacks, hate speech and inflammatory videos spread across the networks rapidly and the Government had to take drastic measures to control the situation and avoid a bloodbath, Fernando explained. However, the Government has not relaxed the restrictions even after the situation in Kandy was brought under control, despite it claiming that it was a temporary measure. 

The current firewall will be removed from 16 March after a review system is finalised with high level representatives from Facebook, who were due to arrive last evening, the Minister said. 

Admitting that the TRC and Defence Ministry had only got in touch with Facebook officials after the Digana incident, Fernando said that the company was initially having issues determining which Sri Lankan agency to coordinate with regarding concerns over national security. 

Following communication with the regional level officials of the company, the Government has nominated the TRC and Defence Ministry to be the authorities to work with the platform on national security issues. 

Fernando was quick to point out that Facebook was also partly to blame for their fate. 

According to him, even though the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team | Co-ordination Center (Sri Lanka CERT|CC) contacted the social media giant it did not take the matters seriously and the response was slow. 

“Before that we have been talking to them about moving pages out, but we were not very happy about the response rate; the quick action or rather prompt action was the problem. I think the way they responded was not fast enough. They only realised that their resource people were not enough to monitor the situation when we raised issues,” he explained.

“When we asked them they say they are reviewing, and the review was not fast enough. They said it takes one week, then the damage is done. When they take one week to review a page, there is more space to share it, more people would have viewed it, more people would download it; then the damage is done. The content readers or those who understand it have to increase.”

However, in the future the Government will be monitoring social media similar to many other countries across the world, he said. 

“I think one of the few countries which does not do this is Sri Lanka. It has to be monitored. This whole problem was because of that; we should have identified these perpetrators who started this, there are about 200 people in custody now. We should have identified this way before. This was started way before on Facebook,” he said. 

“Whatsapp is not completely blocked, we have blocked video downloading as they started sharing videos that were previously shared on FB on these platforms.” 

The Government is also drawing up plans to set up a dedicated body to monitor social media platforms and all forms of cyber bulling and illegal activities including child pornography-related activities, the Minister said. 

“We will be introducing new laws and setting up a monitoring body to monitor all forms of bullying and harassment, hate speech and users of child pornography and similar issues.” 

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