The Internet as a fundamental human right?

Many around the world believe that the Internet access should be a fundamental right, as brought out by a recent BBC global survey. The case was earlier made for mobile phones as a basic human right, which I found rather unconvincing. On the other hand, I see the Internet and web, and the access to both from PCs and mobiles, as key platforms supporting and giving life to Article 19 of the UDHR,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This basic freedom is also recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), in other UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 13), and in all three main regional human rights instruments (Africa, the Americas and Europe).

During the war, the Sri Lankan government (or more accurately, the diktat of the Ministry of Defence) repeatedly cut off communications to the North and East of the country in particular. SMS services were arbitrarily shut down on Independence Day in 2008. Even post war and in 2010 alone, access to information on the web has been curtailed.

And yet it is correct to argue that access to the Internet is one thing, regulation of the Internet another. The former does not guarantee the progressive nature of the latter. It is entirely possible to guarantee access, and yet have a censorious Internet and web filter. It is this right to communicate, anchored to Article 19 of the UDHR, that remains at risk in Sri Lanka even after the end of war.

Some key points from the BBC report:

  • Despite this enthusiasm there is also concern, with many web users cautious about speaking their minds online. The poll found that they were evenly split between those who felt that “the internet is a safe place to express my opinions” (48%) and those who did not feel this (49%).
  • Japan was among the countries where most web users did not feel they could express their opinions safely online (65%), alongside South Korea (70%), France (69%), Germany (72%), and China (55%). In contrast, most Indians (70%), Ghanaians (74%), and Kenyans (73%) felt they could express their opinions safely.
  • The poll also showed that most internet users feel that the internet should not be regulated by governments. More than half (53%) of internet users agreed that “the internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere”—including large majorities in South Korea (83%), Nigeria (77%), and Mexico (72%).
  • The poll also reveals that around one in three internet users across the countries polled regard the web as a good place to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.

The size and nature of the mobile web market

From Gizmodo comes a pointer to this interesting visualisation of the size and nature of the mobile web.

Click image for higher resolution version. Amongst other interesting points,

  • Google dominates mobile search.
  • Nokia and Symbian (which I detest) dominate smartphone sales and mobile OS platforms respectively.
  • Unsurprisingly, the iPhone dominates the mobile web in the US.
  • 29% only use their mobile devices to access the web.
  • 4 billion mobile phones already out there. The number of those who can access a mobile phone is larger.
  • Facebook, surprisingly, is not amongst the top visited mobile websites.
  • SMS is the most used communications tool in the world, by passing email by over 2 billion users.

Are Online Dispute Resolution providers taking note?

A damned democracy and a violent peace: Groundviews


Read over 2,600 times and generating nearly 150 comments to date (well over 30,000 words), The ‘Sinhala-Nationalist’s Burden’ by Kalana Senaratne critiques Gomin Dayasiri’s idea of and primacy given to Sinhala nationalism. Kalana avers that,

“Approaching the Tamil people with a self-made list of grievances is the wrong place and the wrong way to start going about this business of resolving problems affecting the people of the Tamil community. And in particular, such noble deeds cannot be done with a ‘nationalist’ attitude that reflects the tone and tenor of Mr. Dayasiri’s article. Let us not forget the seriousness of the problems involved and seriousness of the response needed to resolve those problems. This response cannot be one that is imposed or even seen to be imposed upon the Tamil people.”

Read over 5,000 times to date and generating over 40 comments to date, PRABAKARAN MUST BE LAUGHING by Seethi Ironi is a succinct contribution that pulls no punches when it questions the violent, corrupt and wholly undemocratic rule of the Rajapase regime, which the author points out is tragically akin to the erstwhile diktat of Prabhakaran. As the author notes,

“If Rajapaksa manages to get a two-thirds majority in parliament by using intimidation and fraud, he will eliminate the last remnants of democracy in Sri Lanka. Prabakaran’s fascist politics would have triumphed not just in the North and East, but in the whole country. That, of course, would be a disaster for all Sri Lankans including Tamils, but when did Prabakaran ever care about the welfare of Tamils? He must be laughing!”

Read over 1,800 times and generating over 60 comments to date (over 10,000 words), Living Secular in the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Republic’ of Sri Lanka by Nalaka Gunawardene is a personal take on how Sri Lanka is no longer a secular country. As Nalaka notes,

“I don’t see how and why a citizen’s religious affiliation – or its complete absence – should matter in the least when dispensing vaccines or justice in the modern world. Isn’t this question itself a residual habit from colonial times that no longer serves any purpose? Actually, I find it worse than redundant; it’s plain insulting.”

Read over 1,200 times, The Buddha Sasana: Sri Lanka’s biggest NGO? by Malinda Seneviratne was only published unedited on Groundviews, a site anchored to the NGO sector the author dismisses carte blanche as a sham and moreover, anti-Buddhist. Perhaps the more useful thrust of the article is an interesting critique of the partisan nature of the Buddha Sasana. As the author notes,

“The Buddha Sasana is an enormous and unique resource. And given its dimensions, we must acknowledge that in the wrong hands it can cause harm to society. As a Buddhist and therefore a member of the Sasana, I humbly call upon the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros to consider a Dharma Sangayana. It is long overdue. If this is not done, let there be no doubt, the Sasana will become a pawn of the NGO gang, which is clearly anti-Buddhist. Let the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros take note.”

Watched over 2,000 times to date, Groundviews features an interview with well-known author and publisher Ameena Hussein.

Watched over 1,300 times to date, Groundviews also features an interview with Prof. Kumar David, an electrical engineer by training and regular political columnist in traditional print media. The interview touches on what’s left of leftist politics in Sri Lanka and the end of war and its impact on Tamil diaspora juxtaposed against autocratic, one-party rule in Sri Lanka.

Creative writing
…for The Missing by Gypsy Bohemia reminds us of what renown Sri Lankan author Carl Muller said of Colombo, one of his novels. “This is, like The Jam Fruit Tree, a work of faction…more fact than fiction, if you please, but that will always remain, I suppose, a matter of personal interpretation.”

…for The Missing was written with journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who was abducted on 24th January and now feared dead.

Other key articles
Citizen’s Commission: Expulsion of the Northern Muslims by the LTTE in October 1990 by Dr. Devanesan Nesiah.

Parliamentary Elections 2010: Living through a kleptocracy and not wanting an alternative by Kusal Perera.

Do candidates need armed security to ask for people’s votes? by Kusal Perera.



Groundviews – Sri Lanka’s first and international award-winning citizens journalism website uses a range of genres and media to highlight alternative perspectives on governance, human rights, the arts and literature, peacebuilding and other issues. The site has won two international awards for the quality of its journalism, including the prestigious Manthan Award South Asia in 2009. The grand jury’s evaluation of the site noted, “What no media dares to report, Groundviews publicly exposes. It’s a new age media for a new Sri Lanka… Free media at it’s very best!”

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A response to Diane Coyle’s defence of New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks

Diane Coyle finds the tone of my critique of New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks, published by the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation “surprising and disappointing”. That’s actually a succinct encapsulation of what I feel about her report itself.

I have already responded in detail to co / second author Patrick Meier’s earlier defence of the report. In our exchange of comments subsequently and in response to my post, Diane may well find the admission of significant exclusions and errors in the report by her co-author worth heeding.

Fundamentally, both authors of this report talk about selection methodologies for the inclusion of case studies in their respective responses to my critique of the report. Tellingly, there is an almost combative resistance to the submission that this methodology as it exists in the minds of the authors finds absolutely no clear expression or explanation in the published version of the report itself.

There is nothing at all wrong with playing to the strengths of authors, as Diane avers. However, as I have repeatedly noted earlier, it is evident that the strengths of both authors fail to bear a robust interrogation of technology in violent, protracted conflict / complex political emergencies (or worse, natural disasters within a context of a CPE, such as the case of the East coast of Sri Lanka at the time of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami). If this aspect was never intended to be part of the report, fine. But then why include the word conflict in the title? And moreover, once included, why does it get glossed over?

Diane also egregiously misreads a point in my response to Patrick. I submitted that it would have made more sense to mention in the report what was left out of detailed case studies, even as just a list with short descriptions and pointers to relevant websites for more information. I went on to suggest that this would have made the report more useful and less exclusive.

Diane interprets this to be an academic literature review! It is emphatically not. It is simply due diligence and the submission that freely available and regularly updated online resources such as the ICT4Peace Foundation’s ICT4Peace wiki, amongst many others, could have been leveraged to far better effect. Earlier and better reports by the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation – Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs for example – also feature recommended readings at the end. New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks does not.

Diane suggests that some comments I make miss the thrust of the report, and uses as an example my problem over the inclusion of Burma in Section 3 of the table that appears on Page 7. Frankly, if what Diane now says is what was intended to be originally communicated, I would strongly recommend that the authors completely revise both language and layout of the table on Page 7, for it is hugely misleading as it stands. The inclusion, for example, of government as an actor – at both national and local levels – would be a fundamental revision in Section 3 alone.

Diane’s confidence that the report makes an important contribution in highlighting the potential for the latest technologies in this field, and the obstacles to realisation of that potential is shared by many, including myself. I sincerely hope therefore that the authors champion an urgent revision and release of a more comprehensive and cogent version of the report.

Al Jazeera questions media freedom in post-war Sri Lanka

Al Jazeera’s path-breaking The Listening Post programme looks at enduring challenges facing media freedom in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan media war continues critically looks at the video broadcast by Channel 4, the sentencing of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and the continued violence against independent media. This programme features at the end very short submissions made by one of Sri Lanka’s leading bloggers, Indi Samarajiva, and myself.

The pros and cons of crowdsourcing election monitoring

Sharek’s Katrin Verclas has a great article looking at the pros and cons of crowdsourcing election monitoring, based on the experience of Lebanon recently. 

I agree that crowdsourcing anything leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy and information fit to feed into critical decision support processes. This is why the ICT4Peace Foundation is working on a crisis information management demonstrator, built on top of Ushahidi, that has information qualification routines built in. The tool will not be for the masses, but for agencies with trusted networks of field personnel who will feed in information, with the system itself open to social media input that can be vetted by agency trusted personnel. This opens up the system to be wholly crowdsourced, à la the Lebanese model, or completely closed to those outside the trust network(s) of an agency / agencies working on a particular issue, in a certain region or towards a shared goal. The design also allows the system to be anything in between these two extremes, so that the key responders to a crisis can determine the best degree of openness.  The important point that even if different international and local agencies had different approaches to what degree the system should be made public (i.e. extend to untrusted, initially unverified crowdsourced information) the common underlying information management architecture and standards would make for far greater and easier interoperability and information harmonisation. 

I’m interested in how Ushahidi’s evolving Swift River concept tackles this problem, that Paul Currion has succintly and accurately expressed here.  

Until such time there’s a better solution, I’ll still be training election monitors at the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) how to enter data into Google Maps that are verified for accuracy in a timely manner. Right now, there’s no escaping the labour required for the task – each location and incident is entered into the map directly, no automated source from the web is used to populate maps. Helps us give as close to a real time image of the ground situation in the lead up to and on the day of election, more useful we are told by extensive feedback from local media, than a mashup that just puts unverified reports on a map along with other data streams.