SLT blocks Tamil websites

Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) has blocked access to the following websites as of today from its ADSL network:

Reports I have received indicate that these are still accessible on Dialog.

All ISPs in Sri Lanka have repeatedly blocked access to Tamilnet.com, but actions today indicate that the scope of websites being blocked that are perceived to be pro-LTTE is increasing apace.

Revisiting the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom: The importance of new media, the web and Internet

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. 

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Any requirement to register websites with governmental authorities is not acceptable.
  4. … 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Net neutrality and Internet QoS in Sri Lanka redux

Lirneasia’s post on Net Neutrality by Chanuka Wattegama stimulated a lot of debate on the pros and cons of net neutrality from a Sri Lankan perspective. In Net Neutrality: Economics and implications for ICT4Peace and ODR I fleshed out some of the implications of Net Neutrality, and Chanuka’s stance on it, for web and internet traffic related to peacebuilding and Online Dispute Resolution. In it I also critiqued Chanuka’s assertion that ” that heavy users should pay for the additional bandwidth they use” would in any way help address Quality of Service (QoS) issues stemming from the lack of international bandwidth (or more accurately, the high cost associated with better bandwidth) in Sri Lanka.

My post prompted the head honcho of Lirneasia to suggest that it really had no position on Net Neutrality. My response to that assertion was followed by another post by Chanuka on Lirneasia’s site, suggesting the debate on net neutrality was of enduring interest in Sri Lanka.

Like Plusnet in the UK, Comcast (in response to the FCC’s ruling) has now come out with what seems to be a sensible, protocol agnostic, traffic management plan. Though different to Vint Cerf’s model of managing traffic on the internet, the Comcast plan looks very interesting on paper. As Ars Technica notes,

Comcast’s new technique is based on a simple premise: during periods of congestion, heavy users of bandwidth on a local node ought to see speed reductions before light users. To make that happen, the system tracks each customer’s uploads and downloads separately using software from Sandvine that runs on Linux servers (Comcast stresses to us that this is not deep packet inspection software, but basic “shallow inspection” code that simply counts packets.)

When any port (think neighborhood node) on the Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) in the local cable company office enters a “near congestion” state, the system looks up the heaviest users of bandwidth during the preceding few minutes. Those users then have their traffic tagged as “Best Effort” rather than the default “Priority Best Effort.” At this point, nothing happens to anyone’s traffic.

When congestion actually occurs, the Priority Best Effort users should see no slowdown in their connections; all traffic will go through ahead of the Best Effort traffic. Best Effort folks may not notice any slowdown, either. They are not speed-limited, but they do go to the back of the quality of service (QoS) line. At this point, if traffic does in fact fill the pipe, users in the Best Effort category will experience delays in their connections, though their traffic will still be sent on whenever possible.

Emphasis mine. 

Deep packet inspection based traffic management is a route that spells disaster for freedom of expression on the web, particularly under repressive regimes that under the guise of say protecting citizenry from pornography can institute a strict regime of over-broad web filtering that censors inconvenient truths. 

Deane’s assertion on Lirneasia’s blog, that the market will look after itself without any regulation and that net neutrality is “American-progressive worry about the free market”, is ignorant of Lirneasia’s significant research on Internet QoS and how (Sri Lankan) telecoms companies will act against the interests of consumers, as noted by Janaka Beneragama and the comment here (though Janaka’s conflation of international bandwidth and unlimited downloads is just wrong).

Further, Lirneasia’s own field-testing of 3G “broadband” points to a glaring divide between marketing hype and reality.

In this context, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) on 12th September 2008, under a misleading PR titled SLTnet goes 3G, stated that, 

SLTnet, the internet arm of SLT which is the largest internet service provider (ISP) in Sri Lanka today offers up to 3 Giga bits per second (Gbps) international internet bandwidth, adding even more capacity to be of better serve to the nation… With this initiative, SLT provides internet users in Sri Lanka super fast access to online web applications such as web search, web mail, calendar, images, VoIP calling applications, audio, video and maps amongst a host of other most popular features on the internet…  SLT is happy to invite and facilitate the hosting of mirror sites of all popular international sites like Google, Yahoo, MSN, Facebook, Youtube etc., to improve the quality of services to Sri Lankan internet users and to help avoid the bottlenecks found in the international internet backbone.

I wonder what the policy analysts at Lirneasia would make of this announcement? On face value, it seems to respond to some of the key findings of the Ashoka-Tissa QoS survey. As noted by Chanuka, “What we saw from our research that limits in international bandwidth is the key reason for the poor broadband experiences in India and Sri Lanka.”  But the PR also has gems like this,

Also SLT is now in the process of further upgrading and improving the direct connectivity with social networking, web application and video service providers as and when the need for broader bandwidth arises.

which is utter nonsense. Let’s also not forget that two years ago, SLT promised us VDSL with speeds of 52Mbps.

In Patriotism and broadband in Sri Lanka I explored a similar announcement by Lanka Bell to strengthen its internet backbone. So in sum Lanka Bell has a 1.2 Terabit cable backbone and SLT now has a 3 Gigabits per second backbone. Dialog I believe has its own backbone.

This sounds like an awful lot of capacity. Yet, to date, my ADSL Office Express connection from SLT, however, shows absolutely no signs of improvement. Today, as on most Sundays, I got a maximum sustained download rate of 224.5kbps and a peak upload rate of 103kbps on a connection that promises much more and for which, may I add, I pay a premium. Tomorrow, after 8am and especially around 5pm, I know my transfer rates will be no better than my erstwhile dial-up modem. So where’s the real benefit to the consumer beyond the marketing spiel?

The issue of net neutrality for Sri Lanka is quite simply this. Sri Lankan telcos will, before investing on local infrastructure and international bandwidth, always default to traffic management to make do with what they already have across their customer base. Improvements to QoS will be infrequent. Being a small market (our entire broadband market is is dwarfed by broadband consumers in large Indian cities alone) yet one that increasingly creates, disseminates and accesses audio-visual content on and for the web, the demands placed on local ISPs to guarantee minimum data transfer rates will continue to grow. However, ISPs will continue to only guarantee maximum data transfer rates, capping and managing as they see fit our use of their pipes. Verbose FUPs will attempt to convince us that network management works in our favour, when the reality will be quite different. And whatever promises SLT, Dialog Telekom and Lanka Bell make on enhanced access to the web, we know that we’ll never be able to access Tamilnet through their pipes. 

While I look forward to mirror sites and the benefits they will bring to long-suffering consumers, I also wonder if, in the absence of progressive regulation, telcos that obey every arbitrary diktat of the Ministry of Defence and under a TRC more interested in appeasing the Rajapakse regime’s lunacy, these seemingly progressive measures will be used to control and curtail our behaviour on and access to the web. 

For me net neutrality is more than serious concerns about deep packet inspection. It is about the commitment to an open web, where regulation is more transparent and progressive than partisan, stentorian and limiting, where government promotes access to the web and Internet as a right of all citizens, where everyone is guaranteed a minimum QoS and where select content isn’t discriminated against. 

I guess given a choice between slow access to an unrestricted internet over blazing fast access to a restricted internet, I’d gladly choose the former.

But is asking for both really that unfair?

UPDATE – 27 September 2008

Lirneasia’s head honcho the good Prof. Samarajiva and I have an interesting debate on the issue of net neutrality starting with his response to this post here.