Sri Lankan Government clamps down on bogus SMS messages and common sense too…

There’s a Star Trek episode called The Ultimate Computer that has Spock, at the end of episode, turning to Dr. McCoy and stating with his inimitable deadpan face that if Dr. McCoy’s engrams were impressed on a computer, the resulting torrential flood of illogic would be most entertaining!

I found myself recalling Spock’s comment when I read the news snippet in The Sunday Times that brought to light this government’s avowed policy to deal with “bogus” SMS messages that resulted in “public fear”.

“Next, it could be your mobile phone in Colombo they shut down” is how I ended a short article I  wrote over a year ago on Groundviews in response to the major telcos shutting off mobile services in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka. As noted by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva from Lirneasia earlier this month on the same issue:

When the government shut down phone networks in the North and the East, I posted the facts, but did not explicitly protest. Few others did.

The lack of strong opposition to their censorious actions has now led the government to take another step: to shut down SMS use on Independence morning. Censorship is coming close to home.

The issue of public safety and security vs. access to mobile phone services and telephony is not unique to Sri Lanka. As I noted on a post that dealt with this issue last year, mobile phones are increasingly a device used for essential emergency communications, even in low income countries.

The regime’s reasoning that shutting mobile phone services to curtail the spread of misinformation / disinformation is just wrong on so many levels. One, it ADDS to public fear and insecurity if people can’t get the information they need to ascertain whether a rumour is false or not if SMS services are cut, if only because many today rely on news and information services like JNW and Ada Derana for 24/7 updates on their handsets.

The news report mentions the following:

Phone service providers may bar SMSs (Short Message Services) for a certain period if unnecessary public fear is created through text messages prior to national events or emergency situations, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) said.

This is bizarre, because SMS today plays a vital role in disaster response. As Chanuka’s experience suggests, SMS’s can be a vital source of information that PREVENTS panic between and amongst family, friends, colleagues and communities. Even Mr. Hulugalle, from the MCNS surely knows this, since the MCNS itself was allegedly going to use SMS mechanisms to provide information in the public interest!!!

That the regime, in its own torrential flood of illogic that’s far from entertaining, now suggests that these vital services will be shut off to prevent public panic is laughably tragic on one level, deeply ominous on another, since this measure can easily become a means through which the government, at its whim and fancy, shuts down mobile services for the transmission of anything it deems to be a threat to public order.

Censorship, now on mobile media, is moving closer to reality and sadly, all our telcos are part of it.

3 thoughts on “Sri Lankan Government clamps down on bogus SMS messages and common sense too…

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