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.”
Sri Lanka’s new government has committed to drafting a new Constitution to replace the current one adopted in 1978.
According to the Cabinet spokesperson, “for the first time [in Sri Lanka], a Constitution is going to be framed with the consultation of people.” Though the country has adopted Constitutions twice after independence — in 1972 and 1978 — public participation was negligible on both occasions.
This is well and good, but it is still not clear what consultation mechanisms would be used, and how genuinely consultative the process is going to be. Our politicians and officials lack imagination and courage to try out new methods of public participation in governance. For example, they barely use the potential of new information and communications technologies (ICTs).
In an interview with Prasad Nirosha Bandara of Ravaya independent broadsheet newspaper, published on 20 December 2015, I make an earnest case for the new Constitution drafting process to be more open, more participatory and more consultative by using all available methods – tried and tested old-fashioned ones, as well as new potential opened up by the spread of the web, mobile phones and social media.
I also draw attention to a historically important memorandum was sent by the Ceylon Rationalist Association on 25 September 1970 to Dr Colvin R De Silva, then Minister of Constitutional Affairs, who was heading the group tasked with drafting what eventually became the country’s first Republican Constitution of 1972. Written by the Association’s Founder President Dr Abraham Thomas Kovoor, it captured the broad, idealistic vision that members of that voluntary group of free thinkers had advocated since its inception in 1960. Among other principles, it advocated – in point 6 – that “the best protection for freedom of conscience is a Secular State”.
I located the memo two years ago and published it online on Groundviews.org so that it becomes widely available. In this interview, I urge the new Constitution drafters of 2016 not to make the same mistakes that Colvin R de Silva did in 1972 by ignoring these ideas of public intellectuals.