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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What were the most iconic images of Asian Tsunami of December 2004?

Every major disaster produces its own iconic images which determine how the collective memory of the world would remember the incident.

In a blog post to mark the sixth anniversary, I quoted photojournalist Shahidul Alam as saying: “The immediacy of an iconic image, its ability to engage with the viewer, its intimacy, the universality of its language, means it is at once a language of the masses, but also the key that can open doors. For both the gatekeepers and the public, the image has a visceral quality that is both raw and delicate. It can move people to laughter and to tears and can touch people at many levels. The iconic image lingers, long after the moment has gone. We are the witnesses of our times and the historians of our ages. We are the collective memories of our communities.”

Looking back six years later, which of the numerous images of the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004 have achieved that iconic status? It was one of the most widely photographed disasters of our time — but which handful of images do we remember now, more than 2,000 days later?

One image that lingers, for its frozen horror and tragedy, is this one taken by Reuters photojournalist Arko Datta in Tamil Nadu, southern India. It later won him the World Press Photo and other international awards.

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian tsunami. The picture was taken in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, on 28 December 2004 (REUTERS, Arko Datta)

For a mega-disaster that was distributed over a very large area along the Indian Ocean rim, covering a dozen countries in South and Southeast Asia, there must be more iconic images — either globally or nationally. What image/s do YOU remember the December 2004 Tsunami by?

It doesn’t matter if they the image was taken by a professional photographer (i.e. one who is paid to do that job) or a holiday maker or a local resident…as long as it was widely shared and has entered our collective consciousness. Please nominate your images with links, which we will display here.

This photo is a fake!

Note: Beware of fake tsunami images that are in circulation, which some people are peddling either knowingly or unknowingly. One of them — allegedly the waves hitting Phuket in Thailand — is exposed at Urban Legends as digitally imagined fantasy. Another set of images is real enough — but have nothing to do with the tsunami. These show people running away from an oncoming burst of water, seemingly a big wave. They are of a TIDAL BORE, not a tsunami, taken in October 2002 at the Qiantang Jian River in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China — an area known for tidal bores.