Avoiding ‘Cyber Nanny State’: Challenges of Social Media Regulation in Sri Lanka

Keynote speech delivered by science writer and digital media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene at the Sri Lanka National IT Conference held in Colombo from 2 to 4 October 2018.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at National IT Conference 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by ReadMe.lk

Here is a summary of what I covered (PPT embedded below):

With around a third of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people using at least one type of social media, the phenomenon is no longer limited to cities or English speakers. But as social media users increase and diversify, so do various excesses and abuses on these platforms: hate speech, fake news, identity theft, cyber bullying/harassment, and privacy violations among them.

Public discourse in Sri Lanka has been focused heavily on social media abuses by a relatively small number of users. In a balanced stock taking of the overall phenomenon, the multitude of substantial benefits should also be counted.  Social media has allowed ordinary Lankans to share information, collaborate around common goals, pursue entrepreneurship and mobilise communities in times of elections or disasters. In a country where the mainstream media has been captured by political and business interests, social media remains the ‘last frontier’ for citizens to discuss issues of public interest. The economic, educational, cultural benefits of social media for the Lankan society have not been scientifically quantified as yet but they are significant – and keep growing by the year.

Whether or not Sri Lanka needs to regulate social media, and if so in what manner, requires the widest possible public debate involving all stakeholders. The executive branch of government and the defence establishment should NOT be deciding unilaterally on this – as was done in March 2018, when Facebook and Instagram were blocked for 8 days and WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (to text only) owing to concerns that a few individuals had used these services to instigate violence against Muslims in the Eastern and Central Provinces.

In this talk, I caution that social media regulation in the name of curbing excesses could easily be extended to crack down on political criticism and minority views that do not conform to majority orthodoxy.  An increasingly insular and unpopular government – now in its last 18 months of its 5-year term – probably fears citizen expressions on social media.

Yet the current Lankan government’s democratic claims and credentials will be tested in how they respond to social media challenges: will that be done in ways that are entirely consistent with the country’s obligations under international human rights laws that have safeguards for the right to Freedom of Expression (FOE)? This is the crucial question.

Already, calls for social media regulation (in unspecified ways) are being made by certain religious groups as well as the military. At a recent closed-door symposium convened by the Lankan defence ministry’s think tank, the military was reported to have said “Misinformation directed at the military is a national security concern” and urged: “Regulation is needed on misinformation in the public domain.”

How will the usually opaque and unpredictable public policy making process in Sri Lanka respond to such partisan and strident advocacy? Might the democratic, societal and economic benefits of social media be sacrificed for political expediency and claims of national security?

To keep overbearing state regulation at bay, social media users and global platforms can step up arrangements for self-regulation, i.e. where the community of users and the platform administrators work together to monitor, determine and remove content that violates pre-agreed norms or standards. However, the presentation acknowledges that this approach is fraught with practical difficulties given the hundreds of languages involved and the tens of millions of new content items being published every day.

What is to be done to balance the competing interests within a democratic framework?

I quote the views of David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression from his June 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council about online content regulation. He cautioned against the criminalising of online criticism of governments, religion or other public institutions. He also expressed concerns about some recent national laws making global social media companies responsible, at the risk of steep financial penalties, to assess what is illegal online, without the kind of public accountability that such decisions require (e.g. judicial oversight).

Kaye recommends that States ensure an enabling environment for online freedom of expression and that companies apply human rights standards at all  stages of their operations. Human rights law gives companies the tools to articulate their positions in ways that respect democratic norms and

counter authoritarian demands. At a minimum, he says, global SM companies and States should pursue radically improved transparency, from rule-making to enforcement of  the rules, to ensure user autonomy as individuals increasingly exercise fundamental rights online.

We can shape the new cyber frontier to be safer and more inclusive. But a safer web experience would lose its meaning if the heavy hand of government tries to make it a sanitized, lame or sycophantic environment. Sri Lanka has suffered for decades from having a nanny state, and in the twenty first century it does not need to evolve into a cyber nanny state.

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DW Global Media Forum 2018: Moderating panel on ‘Digitalization and Polarization of the Media’

Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum (GMF), in Bonn, Germany, 11 – 13 June 2018

I was a participant and speaker at the 11th Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum (GMF), held in Bonn, Germany, from 11 to 13 June 2018.

Around 2,000 media professionals and experts from over 100 countries gathered at the World Conference Centre Bonn (WCCB) for the event, themed on ‘Global Inequalities’. Across many plenaries and parallel sessions, we discussed a whole range of issues related to politics and human rights, media development and innovative journalism concepts.

On 13 June 2018, I moderated a session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public” which was organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) or Institute for Foreign Relations, a century old entity located in Stuttgart.

My accomplished panellists were:

 

L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene (moderator), Christian Humborg, Jillian York, and Curd Knupfer. [Photo courtesy DW GMF 2018]

Here are my opening remarks for the panel, setting it in context:

Our topic resonates deeply with my personal experiences. I come from Sri Lanka, where a brutal civil war lasted for 26 years and ended nearly a decade ago. But even today, my society remains highly polarised along ethnic, religious and political lines. This is very worrying, especially as we are a multicultural society.

Our media, for the most part, reflect this division in society — and many sections of the media actually keep dividing us even further! Reconciliation is the last thing some of our tribal media owners and editors seem to want…

This situation is by no means unique to Sri Lanka. Well into the 21st century’s second decade, tribalistic media seems to be proliferating both in analog and digital realms! We can find examples from the East and the West, and from the global North and the South.

But let’s be clear: these trends predate the digitalisation of (what is still called) mainstream media and the emergence of entirely digital media. Trends like ultra-nationalistic media, hate speech and fake news have all been around for decades — certainly well before the web emerged in the 1990s.

What digital tools and the web have done is to ‘turbo-charge’ these trends. The ease with which content can now be created and the speed at which it can be globally shared is unprecedented. As is the intensity of misuse of social media platforms, and the spreading of deliberate falsehoods, or disinformation. Conspiracy theorists, spin doctors and other assorted charlatans never had it so good!

What is all this doing to our politics and societies, especially in democracies?

In today’s discussion, we will consider both the established media – television, radio and newspapers – as well as the newer media that are digitally produced and distributed online. (Demarcations are blurred because many ‘old media’ content is also now digitally available.)

Nalaka Gunawardene moderating session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public” at DW Global Media Forum 2018 in Bonn, 13 June 2018 [Photo courtesy DW GMF 2018]

In today’s panel, we want to recognise a few key questions, all of them at ‘big picture’ level:

  • How are old media and new media so much better at polarising societies than in uniting or unifying societies? Do they tape into a fundamental tribal instinct among us?
  • Is the free and open internet, especially in the form of social media, undermining free and open societies?
  • Around the world, digital media have been a powerful force for the good, promoting human rights, democracy and social empowerment. But is that era of idealism coming to an end? What next?
  • How is the role of news journalism changing in an age of foreign policy making that is increasingly impulsive and driven by social media?
  • What policies, regulations and actions are needed to avoid undesirable outcomes and to harness all media for the public good?

We may not find all the answers today, but it is very important that we ask these questions and collectively search for answers.

Some of the participants at session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media” at DW Global Media Forum 2018 [Photo courtesy DW GMF 2018]

Here is the panel description written by the organisers:

Populism and nationalism are on the rise in many democracies. Recent elections, especially Trump’s victory in the US, are proof of deep social cleavages and the polarization of the media. The media system itself seems to be both the problem and the solution. It reveals the inequality of access to media, to a range of opinions, and to a true exchange that takes place outside of everyone’s echo chamber, and it highlights unequal levels of media literacy.

How can the media itself contribute to overcoming this polarization and disrupt these echo chambers? What does this fragmentation mean for political debates in democracies? How is the role of news journalism changing in an age of foreign policy making that is increasingly impulsive and driven by social media? How important is net neutrality? And what media policies are needed?

Speakers for the DW-GMF 2018 session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public”

 

[Op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI ‘Glass’ is Slowly Filling Up

Op-ed published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on Sunday, 1 April 2018:

Sri Lanka’s RTI Glass is Slowly Filling Up

by Nalaka Gunawardene

In June 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government. After a preparatory period of six months, citizens were allowed to exercise their newly granted Right to Information (RTI) by filing information applications from February 2017 onward.

Just over a year later, the results are a mixed bag of successes, challenges and frustrations. There have been formidable teething problems – some sorted out by now, while others continue to slow down the new law’s smooth operation.

On the ‘supply side’ of RTI, several thousand ‘public authorities’ at central, provincial and local government level had to get ready to practise the notion of ‘open government’.  This includes the all government ministries, departments, state corporations, other stator bodies and companies that are wholly or majority state owned. Despite training programmes and administrative circulars, there remain some gaps in officials’ attitudes, capacity and readiness to process citizens’ RTI applications.

To be sure, we should not expect miracles in one year after we have had 25 centuries of closed government under all the Lankan monarchs, colonial rulers and post-independence governments. RTI is a major conceptual and operational ‘leap’ for some public authorities and officials who have hidden or denied information rather than disclosed or shared it with the public.

Owing to this mindset, some officials have been trying to play hide-and-seek with RTI applications. Others are grudgingly abiding by the letter of the law — but not its spirit. These challenges place a greater responsibility on active citizens to pursue their RTI applications indefatigably.

During the first year of operation, the independent RTI Commission had received a little over 400 appeals from persistent citizens who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. In a clear majority of cases heard so far, the Commission has ordered disclosure of information that was initially declined. These rulings are sending a clear message to all public authorities: RTI is not a choice, but a legal imperative. Fall in line, or else…

To ensure all public authorities comply with this law, it is vital to sustain citizen pressure. This is where the ‘demand side’ of RTI needs a lot more work. Unlike most other laws of the land that government uses, RTI is a rare law that citizens have to exercise – government only responds. Experience across Asia and elsewhere shows that the more RTI is used by people, the sharper and stronger it becomes.

It is hard to assess current public awareness levels on RTI without doing a large sample survey (one is being planned). However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to indicate that more Lankans have heard about RTI even if they are not yet clear on specifics.

But we still have plenty to do on the demand side: citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems – both private and public grievances – and be motivated to file more RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards government, and start demanding answers more vociferously.

Citizens who have been denied clear or any answers to their pressing problems – on missing persons, land rights, subsidies or public spending – are using RTI as an additional tool. We need to sustain momentum. RTI is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even though some journalists and editors were at the forefront in advocating for RTI in Sri Lanka for over two decades, the Lankan media as a whole is yet to grasp RTI’s potential.

Promisingly, some younger journalists have been producing impressive public interest stories – on topics as varied as disaster responses, waste management and human rights abuses – based on what they uncovered with their RTI applications. One of them, working for a Sinhala language daily, has filed over 40 RTI applications and experienced a success rate of around 70 per cent.

Meanwhile, some civil society groups are helping ordinary citizens to file RTI applications. A good example is the Vavuniya-based youth group, the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), that spearheads a campaign to submit RTI applications across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, seeking information on private land that has been occupied by the military during the civil war and beyond. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, is running RTI clinics in different parts of the country with Transparency International Sri Lanka to equip citizens to exercise this new right.

The road to open government is a bumpy one, but there is no turning back on this journey. RTI in Sri Lanka may not yet have opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely breached. Watch this space.

Disclosure: The writer works with both government and civil society groups in training and promoting RTI. These views are his own.

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය අවහිරයෙන් ඔබ්බට: නව නීති හා නියාමන අවශ්‍යද? Beyond Social Media block in Sri Lanka

This article, in Sinhala, appeared in Irida Lakbima broadsheet newspaper on Sunday, 18 March 2018 and is based on an interview with myself on Sri Lanka’s Social Media block that lasted from 7 to 15 March 2018.

I discuss Facebook’s Community Standards and the complaints mechanism currently in place, and the difficulties that non-English language content poses for Facebook’s designated monitors looking out for violations of these standards. Hate speech and other objectionable content produced in local languages like Sinhala sometimes pass through FB’s scrutiny. This indicates more needs to be done both by the platform’s administrators, as well as by concerned FB users who spot such content.

But I sound a caution about introducing new Sri Lankan laws to regulate social media, as that can easily stifle citizens’ right to freedom of expression to question, challenge and criticise politicians and officials. Of course, FoE can have reasonable and proportionate limits, and our challenge is to have a public dialogue on what these limits are for online speech and self-expression that social media enables.

Lakbima 18 March 2018

 

 

 

Debating Social Media Block in Sri Lanka: Talk show on TV Derana, 14 March 2018

Aluth Parlimenthuwa live talk show on Social Media Blocking in Sri Lanka – TV Derana, 14 March 2018

Sri Lanka’s first ever social media blocking lasted from 7 to 15 March 2018. During that time, Facebook and Instagram were completely blocked while chat apps WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (no images, audio or video, but text allowed).

On 7 March 2018, the country’s telecom regulator, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL), ordered all telecom operators to impose this blocking across the country for three days, Reuters reported. This was “to prevent the spread of communal violence”, the news agency quoted an unnamed government official as saying. In the end, the blocking lasted 8 days.

For a short while during this period, Internet access was stopped entirely to Kandy district “after discovering rioters were using online messaging services like WhatsApp to coordinate attacks on Muslim properties”.

Both actions are unprecedented. In the 23 years Sri Lanka has had commercial Internet services, it has never imposed complete network shutdowns (although during the last phase of the civil war between 2005 and 2009, the government periodically shut down telephone services in the Northern and Eastern Provinces). Nor has any social media or messaging platforms been blocked before.

I protested this course of action from the very outset. Restricting public communications networks is ill-advised at any time — and especially bad during an emergency when people are frantically seeking reliable situation updates and/or sharing information about the safety of loved ones.

Blocking selected websites or platforms is a self-defeating exercise in any case, since those who are more digitally savvy – many hate peddlers among them –can and will use proxy servers to get around. It is the average web user who will be deprived of news, views and updates.

While the blocking was on, I gave many media interviews to local and international media. I urged the government “to Police the streets, not the web!”.

At the same time, I acknowledged and explained how a few political and religious extremist groups have systematically ‘weaponised’ social media in Sri Lanka during recent years. These groups have been peddling racially charged hate speech online and offline. A law to deal with hate speech has been in the country’s law books for over a decade. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007 prohibits the advocacy of ‘religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’. This law, fully compliant with international human rights standards, has not been enforced.

On 14 March 2018, I took part in the ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ TV talk show of TV Derana on this topic, where I articulated the above and related views. The other panelists were Deputy Minister Karu Paranawithana, presidential advisor Shiral Lakthilaka, Bar Association of Sri Lanka chairman U R de Silva, and media commentator Mohan Samaranayake.

Part 1:

Part 2:

 

Talking at RSF Germany: Support Sri Lanka’s media freedom and professionalism needs!

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on media freedom and media professionalism in Sri Lanka at Germany’s Reporters without Borders (RSF, or Reporter ohne Grenzen) in Berlin, 17 Nov 2017

On a brief visit to Berlin, Germany, to speak at a media research and academic symposium, I was invited by Germany’s Reporters without Borders (RSF, or Reporter ohne Grenzen) to address a side event at their office that looked at media freedom status and media development needs of Sri Lanka.

It was a small gathering that involved some media rights activists, researchers  and journalists in Germany who take an interest in media freedom and media development issues in Asia. I engaged in a conversation first with Anne Renzenbrink of RSF Germany (who covers Asia) and then with my audience.

I said the media freedoms have significantly improved since the change of government in Jan 2015 – journalists and activists are no longer living in fear of white vans and government goon squads when they criticise political leaders.

But the pre-2015 benchmarks were abysmally low and we should never be complacent with progress so far, as much more needs to be done. We need to institutionalise media freedoms AND media responsibilities. So our media reforms agenda is both wide ranging and urgent, I said (and provided some details).

I used my favourite metaphor: the media freedom glass in Sri Lanka is less than half full today, and we need to gradually fill it up. But never forget: there was no water, and not even a glass, before Jan 2015!

Sri Lanka has risen 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index that RSF compiles every year: 2016, we jumped up from 165th rank (in 2015, which reflected the previous year’s conditions) to 141st rank out of 180 countries assessed. The new ranking remained the same between 2016 and 2017.  Sri Lanka is still marked as red on the world map of the Index, indicating ‘Difficult situation’. We still have a long way to go…

When asked how European partners can help, I said: please keep monitoring media freedom in Sri Lanka, provide international solidarity when needed, and support the journalists’ organisations and trade unions to advocate for both media rights and media professionalism.

I was also asked about slow progress in investigating past atrocities against journalists and media organisations; recent resumption of web censorship after a lull of two years; how journalists are benefitting from Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information law; the particular challenges faced by journalists in the North and East of Sri Lanka (former war areas); and the status of media regulation by state and self-regulation by the media industry.

I also touched on how the mainstream media’s monopoly over news gathering and analysis has been ended by social media becoming a place where individuals are sharing news, updates – as well as misinformation, thereby raising new challenges.

I gave candid and measured answers, all of which are on the record but too detailed to be captured here. My answers were consistent with what I have been saying in public forums (within and outside Sri Lanka), and publicly on Twitter and Facebook.

And, of course, I was speaking my personal views and not the views of any entity that I am working with.

Nalaka Gunawardene at RSF Germany office in Berlin, next to World Press Freedom Index 2017 map