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.
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.
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.
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.
This comment on Sri Lanka’s social media blocking that commenced on 7 March 2018, was written on 8 March 2018 at the request of Irida Lakbima Sunday broadsheet newspaper, which carried excerpts from it in their issue of 11 March 2018. The full text is shared here, for the record.
Sri Lanka’s broadcast sector, which was a state monopoly for decades, was finally opened up for private sector participation in 1992. However, it has been an ad hoc process ever since – with no clear rules nor any independent enforcement or regulatory mechanism. The broadcast licensing process remains undefined, opaque and discretionary on the part of politicians and officials in charge of media.
This has led to a squandering of the electromagnetic spectrum, a public property: private sector participation in broadcasting has been open only to business confidantes of various ruling parties that have been in office since 1990.
Finally, I clarify that media regulation is not the control of media content or messages, but merely creating a level playing field for all participant companies including the state broadcasters in ways that would best serve the interest of audiences who are the public.
Broadcasting uses the electro-magnetic spectrum, a public resource. It is also a finite resource: there is only so much of the spectrum available for broadcasting and other uses such as telecommunications, emergency communications and military uses. And because it is a scarce resource, it is valuable.
In a landmark 1995 judgment, the Supreme Court of India held that the airwaves or frequencies in the electro-magnetic spectrum are a public property. Thus, their use had to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interests of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights. Since the broadcast media involves the use of the airwaves, this factor creates an inbuilt restriction on its use, as in the case of any other public property.
Sri Lanka’s broadcast sector, which was a state monopoly for decades, was finally opened up for private sector participation in 1992. However, this decision was not accompanied by any specific laws or regulations; it has been an ad hoc process ever since. There are no clear rules nor any independent enforcement or regulatory mechanism. The broadcast licensing process remains undefined, opaque and discretionary on the part of the minister and officials in charge of media.
There are no published guidelines or criteria. In their absence, there is no legal provision to support public service media or community media through licensing. Licence issuing practices so far do not indicate any such interest. The private sector participation in broadcasting has been open only to business confidantes of various ruling parties that have been in office since 1990.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in issue of 28 February 2016), I discuss the plundering of the electromagnetic spectrum in Sri Lanka and the resulting chaos in the broadcast sector. I quote former Media Ministry secretary Dr Charitha Herath and Colombo University mass media academic Dr Pradeep Nishantha Weerasinghe whose masters degree thesis analysed the early years of broadcast sector ‘liberalization’ in Sri Lanka during the 1990s.
The report draws on a survey of 1,743 randomly selected men and women, interviewed in Sinhala or Tamil language during June-July 2015. They were asked about mobile phone use and web access. The survey was conducted by Social Indicator, CPA’s survey research unit.
As the launch media release noted, “From the use of Facebook to smartphones, from news on TV to news via SMS, from how information read digitally is spread to others who are offline, the report offers insights into how content is produced, disseminated and discussed in Sri Lanka’s most densely populated province and home to the country’s administrative and business hubs.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, published in issue of 15 March 2015), I discuss what policy and regulatory measures can help promote information society in Sri Lanka. In that process, I critique the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL) and the ICT Agency (ICTA), two state institutions with relevant mandates that they have mismanaged, and sometimes squandered, during the past decade.
I argue that, for the most part, ICTA has been dabbling in ‘retail’ level (and politically driven) projects such as setting up rural tele-centres and designing government websites, while neglecting ‘wholesale’ level needs – such as resolving local font standardization, supporting ICT innovation, and being a facilitator of meaningful e-government. Similarly, TRC has been engaging in indiscriminate blocking of political websites critical of the former government, without creating an enabling environment in which pluralistic web content could thrive.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I return to the oft-discussed topic of social media in today’s Lankan society.
If media mirror the realities of its land and times, don’t social media reflect its society as well? And if some among us don’t like what is expressed by fellow citizens using social media platforms, could it be that many inconvenient issues and questions – excluded in the mainstream media – are being raised?
Yes, we need to discuss the social, cultural and political implications of growing social media use. However, that debate will not be served by insular and insecure mindsets that see every aspect of globalization as a threat or conspiracy.
Just how many Internet users are there in Sri Lanka?
Looks like a simple question, but there’s no simple answer. Trust me, I’ve been looking.
Oh sure, it’s not possible to calculate such numbers precisely because there always are more users than are subscribers. But official and industry sources usually have a good idea. In Sri Lanka’s case, their figures vary considerably.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) is the official data collector. It used to publish a quarterly compendium of telecom industry related statistics.
The last such report, for December 2010, cites these cumulative figures for the whole of Sri Lanka by end 2010:
• Mobile phone subscribers: 17,359,312
• Fixed phone subscribers: 3,578,463
• Internet & Email Subscribers – fixed: : 280,000 (provisional figure)
• Mobile Broadband Subscribers: 294,000 (provisional figure)
Although for the same point in time (Dec 2010), it doesn’t tally. TRCSL’s own data, when we add up fixed and mobile subscribers of Internet, comes to 574,000.
Both these state entities seem to be hooked on “email users” — a throw-back to the early dial-up days when some subscribers simply signed up for email facility and didn’t want web browsing as the latter was more costly. As far as I know, that demarcation disappeared years ago. But I may be wrong.
Even if we take the highest case scenario, of a total 574,000 Internet subscribers (fixed and mobile), it still comes to less than 3 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total population of 20 million (exactly how many people live on the island will be known after the latest census is taken in December 2011).
That’s the number of subscribers. The number of users is usually higher. Assuming an average 3 users per subscription, we can imagine around 1.72 million (approx 8 per cent of population) getting online. This calculation brings us closer to the number given for Sri Lanka in the Internet World Stats website. It lists for Sri Lanka: “1,776,200 Internet users as of Jun/10, 8.3% penetration, per ITU.”
The ITU focal point in Sri Lanka is the TRCSL, whose own published data is mentioned above. What am I missing here?
A researcher friend who had access to Wireless Intelligence, a subscription only service containing well over 5 million individual data points on 940 operators (across 2,200 networks) and 55 groups in 225 countries, found yet another statistic.
According to WI, Sri Lanka by end 2010 had:
• 1,971,018 mobile broadband subscribers
• 213,000 fixed broadband subscribers
This produced a total of 2,184,018 — which takes the percentage of population to almost 11%. And if we apply the same average number of 3 users, it could give us 30% of population accessing and using the Internet. But is that assumption of 3 users per subscription equally applicable to mobile devices? I’m not sure. I’ll wait for industry experts to clarify.
In fact, neither industry sources and researchers have a reliable figure of how many smartphones are in use in Sri Lanka. Because a significant number comes in through private channels (via returning travellers or Lankan expatriates), the looking simply at the import figures could be misleading. A conservative estimate is that at least one million smartphones with Internet access capability are in use. The number keeps growing.
Exactly how many such smartphone users go online on a regular basis? What kind of info do they look up? How long on average do they stay online per session?
If you know the answers, or have reflected on these, please share.
Let’s hope more reliable data would emerge from the 2011 countrywide census of population. An early report (July 2010) said: “Information will also be collected for the first time on people’s communication methods.”