I was invited to present some thoughts on a session on new media organised by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) as part of a workshop that would renew the 1998 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom.
Before the panel began, D.B. Nihalsingha, the Chair for the panel, asked Rohan Samarajiva and I what the acronym ICT stood for and what the ICT Agency did in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t a good omen. In the 10 minutes he wasted introducing the topic, he noted that DVDs were also part of new media. Perhaps D.B. Nihalsingha believes that Web 2.0 can be installed off a DVD…
The Chair also tragi-comically cut off my presentation, which is below.
I noted in an email sent to SLPI that placing a media dinosaur like Nihalsingha, with no demonstrable wit to engage with, much less understand or use new media, to moderate a session on the issue and related technologies was akin to putting someone from SLPI as moderator on a panel discussing molecular biology at a bio-ethics workshop.
Faith or intervention?
In a pursuant discussion with co-panelist Rohan Samarajiva on the points I noted in my presentation, it emerged that he believed that the incompetence of the Rajapakse regime was it own best safeguard against measures such as the filtering of pornography on the web and other measures taken to curtail, block and undermine communications over the web and Internet. We agreed on the point of the regime’s incompetence.
Where I disagreed was the point that this alone was a safeguard against policies and practices that would and could seriously undermine communications over the web and internet that sought to hold the regime accountable for its actions, make governance transparent, expose corruption or strengthen debates on human rights.
I also made the point that ISPs today – the likes of Mobitel, Dialog, Suntel etc – are supinely subservient to the MoD and the Rajapakse regime. Rohan pointed to existing regulations and legislation that was in place to ensure that there was in theory a paper trail for government – ISP interactions and communication. We both laughed at the fact that existing legislation and regulations, in the context of a Supreme Court operating on personal bias and an Executive operating on alien logic at best was pretty much useless in practice.
Holding ISPs in Sri Lanka accountable
I went on to make the point that given their capacity to covertly monitor, curtail and block communications at the whim and fancy of the regime to meet its parochial interests, ISPs needed to be held up to public scrutiny. Their policies and practices needed to be explicit on how they would handle extraordinary requests from government to monitor communications.
I was cognisant though that the lack of an enabling Right to Information legislation in Sri Lanka severely hampers consumer awareness and protection in this regard. As citizens, we have no choice but to accept what government and ISPs tell us they are doing to protect our privacy.
This is simply not good enough.
The market in Sri Lanka will not check or hold accountable practices that target communications and the sources of content that embarrasses big business and its egregious complicity with a brutish regime. One mobile phone provider / ISP had explicitly told someone who had met them recently to find out about partnership opportunities for civil society content production and dissemination that it would not entertain any content on its network without clearing it first internally and then also through the MoD. Another telco had informed a customer that it was discontinuing its teleconferencing services for ‘security reasons’.
The burden of proof of on-going measures taken to ensure customer privacy and non-discriminatory network management lie with ISPs, not with consumers. Yet who in Sri Lanka is looking at this and calling for such proof? As I noted in a recent email to some colleagues,
It’s ironical – we are able to measure telcos’ quality of service in a technical sense. Yet, the open and sustained condemnation of practices and policies inimical to the freedom of expression by telcos over their networks is much harder to come by. All our telcos choose to operate in a manner that is supinely sycophantic towards the Mahinda administration. This has a direct, real impact on human rights. It’s time telcos were told this in no uncertain terms.
That said, my fear is that inspired by the proposed Data Communications Bill in the UK (see The rise of Big Brother in the UK: The problems for the rest of us), the new anti-porn ISP filtering regime in Australia and the antics of the NSA in the US (see When civil liberties are trumped and communications intercepted) Mahinda’s regime and Sri Lankan telcos are going to get much worse.
As I noted in the presentation (Slide 24) we need to name and shame ISPs and telcos that encourage policies and practices inimical to human rights, privacy and the freedom of expression.
A Sri Lankan EFF?
One idea that I wanted to emphasize before the Chair cut me off was the creation of a (in)formal body on the lines of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to monitor practices and policies of ISPs in Sri Lanka, using tools like Switzerland (Slide 22). It could mature into an entity that provided education on web security, undertook pro-rights / pro-consumer Public Interest Litigation and also provide bloggers with legal protection and advice.
Recommendations for the new Colombo Declaration
What the audience missed out on, and what may be most important to the drafters of the new Colombo Declaration, were 6 recommendations from Reporters Without Borders and the OSCE to ensure freedom of expression on the Internet. These are worth underscoring here as principle deeply relevant to the context of new media, telecoms regulation and internet / web communications in Sri Lanka.
- Any law about the flow of information online must be anchored in the right to freedom of expression as defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- In a democratic and open society it is up to the citizens to decide what they wish to access and view on the Internet. Filtering or rating of online content by governments is unacceptable. Filters should only be installed by Internet users themselves. Any policy of filtering, be it at a national or local level, conflicts with the principle of free flow of information.
- Any requirement to register websites with governmental authorities is not acceptable.
- … A decision on whether a website is legal or illegal can only be taken by a judge, not by a service provider. Such proceedings should guarantee transparency, accountability and the right to appeal.
- All Internet content should be subject to the legislation of the country of its origin (“upload rule”) and not to the legislation of the country where it is downloaded.
- The Internet combines various types of media, and new publishing tools such as blogging are developing. Internet writers and online journalists should be legally protected under the basic principle of the right to freedom of expression and the complementary rights of privacy and protection of sources.
Perhaps if the SLPI and PCC moved away from geriatrics and engaged more with vibrant, compelling content produced by Sri Lankan bloggers and citizen journalists, there would be a better chance of progressive conversations, inter-generational learning as well as mutually beneficial exchanges of technologies and ideas hugely relevant to journalism in the future.