Drawing from my recent interactions with the IGF Academy, as well as several academic and civil society groups, I position the current public debates on web’s socio-cultural impacts in the context of freedom of expression.
With 30 per cent of our population now using the Internet, it is no longer a peripheral pursuit. Neither is it limited to cities or rich people. So we urgently need more accurate insights into how society and economy are being transformed by these modern tools.
My basic premise: many well-meaning persons who urge for greater regulation of the web and social media overlook that governments in Sri Lanka have a terrible track record in stifling dissent in the name of safeguarding the public.
I argue: “As a democracy recovering from a decade of authoritarianism, we need to be especially careful how public sentiments based on fear or populism can push policymakers to restrict freedom of expression online. The web has become the last frontier for free speech when it is under pressure elsewhere.
“When our politicians look up to academics and researchers for policy guidance, the advice they often get is control or block these new media. Instead, what we need is more study, deeper reflection and – after that, if really required – some light-touch regulation.”
I acknowledge that there indeed are problems arising from these new technologies – some predictable, and others not. They include cyber-bullying, hate speech, identity theft through account hijacking, trolling (deliberately offensive or provocative online postings) and sexting (sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, primarily via mobile phones).
I cite some research findings from the work done by non-profit groups or media activists. These findings are not pretty, and some of them outright damning. But bans, blocks and penalties alone cannot deal with these or other abuses, I argue.
I end with these words: “We can and must 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 or social orthodoxy tries to make it a sanitized, lame or sycophantic environment at the same time. We sure don’t need a cyber nanny state.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala language), I probe why sections of Lankan society are habouring growing fears of social media, especially Facebook.
A few have called for a blanket ban of Facebook, which the secretary to the Ministry of Media has assured (in his Twitter feed) would not happen. There is an urgent need, however, to enhance public understanding in Sri Lanka of social media use, with particular attention on safety precautions, privacy protection and cyber civility.