Pitfalls of privacy online

The Ceylon Today newspaper quotes me in what is becoming a familiar story – identity theft and the unauthorised use of photos posted to various online social media fora for nefarious activities. Women and Media Collective‘s Sepali Kottegoda underscores the problem, yet the challenge remains on how to build and teach this (new) media literacy to parents, young adults and children.


Editor of Groundviews, Sanjana Haththotuwa (sic) commented on the issue, bringing into focus the shortcomings of online privacy. “You can at best get Facebook to shut the page down, but in seconds, another can take its place. And if Facebook then bans the user account that created the pages, another can be created. Using the new account, another new page can be created. If Facebook shuts down all such pages on Facebook itself, a group similar to it can be created, in seconds, on another social media platform. The real problem here is the lack of awareness about privacy online, and in online social media forums in particular.”

“Instances such as these are very much a part of what is known as internet violence against women,” Head of Women and Media Collective, Sepali Kottegoda said. “The focus on school children in Sri Lanka is extremely worrying. We have to look into the aspects of internet security and if the country decides to ban such sites, we need to have a set of clear guidelines that can be used in the human rights framework for women. These incidents go beyond presentation and unauthorized use of content. It is a serious violation against women and girls, and it can be considered a form of sexual abuse if intended in such a way. The lack of knowledge on online privacy needs to be addressed. It’s the kind of technical training both kids and adults need.”

Australia and pornography: Google says filtering goes too far

I recently wrote on how even robust democracies can censor the Internet. When even democracies go awry with online dissent looked at the examples from France, Australia, the United Kingdom and even the US where new media use, including citizen journalism, and other content have been banned or blocked. Whenever I have decried censorship in Sri Lanka, I have noted that similar initiatives in these countries gives regimes far less democratic a convenient excuse for their own actions to control and censor content they find inconvenient.

Google agrees.

As reported in Ars Technica, Google is, unsurprisingly, less than enthusiastic about Australia’s pornographic filtering on the internet.

Predictably, Google has some objections (PDF), including its oblique comment that Australia’s mandatory filtering scheme could “confer legitimacy upon filtering by other Governments.”

“Australia is rightly regarded as a liberal democracy that balances individual liberty with social responsibility,” continues the Google filing. “The Governments of many other countries may justify, by reference to Australia, their use of filtering, their lack of disclosure about what is being filtered, and their political direction of agencies administering filtering.”

Because Australia’s constitution does not contain blanket support for freedom of expression, instead offering a more limited freedom of political discourse), Google argues that “there is a significant risk that filtering applied today to RC content could readily be extended by future governments to other forms of expression, whether related to sexual content or violence or not.”

Australia’s problems with filtering pornographic content mirror the technical difficulties – some would argue technical impossibility – of censoring such content online. Sri Lanka has also made noises in this regard in 2008, but to date, even twelve sites determined to have pornographic content and blocked by court order are accessible over some ISPs.

Will this change in the future, with the justification used that the regimes that lecture to the government about the freedom of expression also clamp down on content online?

From pornography to censorship?

In a presentation made at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) on the occasion of drafting the 2008 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility, I noted that,

I certainly agree with the fact that we need to protect our children from pornography, but it does not really tell us how it is going to do this.  It is an incredible technical challenge to do this. It could also be pornography today but the same technology can  be used to create what is called the Great Firewall of China.

Late 2008, the Government out of the blue demanded measures that somehow needed to be taken by ISPs to ‘protect’ children from online pornography. It was evident that the Executive and the motely crew of yes-men who surround him, including at ICTA and all of the major ISPs / telcos, had the courage to suggest that this was technically unfeasible, unworkable, unnecessary and unsustainable – without of course egregious and over broad censorship and monitoring of web and Internet communications.

Foreign Policy magazines new Net Policy blog lists my own writing as a daily read. When I was going through the content posted by Evgeny Morozov, the blog’s chief contributor, I found this post that resonated with the domestic scenario,

In January, I wrote a column for Newsweek International, arguing that the Chinese are using the “pornography” excuse — a goverment-sanctioned effort to crack down on online vulgarity — to shut down several sites offering highly critical opinions on political and social issues in modern China (the most prominent of them was an edgy Chinese group blog, bullog.cn). Now, other countries are getting the hang of China’s tricks. News site Menassat reports on a recent “anti-porn” campaign in Bahrain being used to target a wide spectrum of groups, including those working on human rights issues. Even more disturbingly, the campaign has now spread to social media sites like Facebook.

There’s a warning and lesson for Sri Lanka here.

The rise of the Nanny State: Sri Lanka to filter pornography on the web

It was almost exactly a year ago that I read this report on Techcrunch that said children in Nigeria were accessing porn from the XO Laptop (alias $100 PC). The story noted, tongue in cheek that

It’s heart warming to know that the efforts of the well meaning folks behind the OLPC project are delivering real results on the ground; providing the same opportunities for teenage boys to access internet porn no matter how impoverished they are or where they live. 

It’s equally heart-warming to note the special Presidential directive to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) that websites featuring obscene and pornographic material should be filtered with immediate effect to protect children against internet pornography.

A Sri Lankan President who cares and is a paragon of virtue. Who would have imagined it? 

In 1999, Australia tried to do much the same thing and it resulted in a huge public outcry against the rise of a nanny state. And as I suspect, unlike what will be the usual supine subservience to misplaced Presidential wisdom by Sri Lankan ISPs, Australian ISPs also made the case that it was simply not technically or economically feasible to block “pornographic sites”. Reading through existing net filtering legislation in Australia one notes the chaotic nature of it all and the emphasis on expunging “pornographic” content hosted in Australia as opposed to content offshore, which it does not censor. In August 2007 the Australian Government’s NetAlert programme started to offer free internet filters, online safety guides and other tips for parents, teachers and librarians.  

The Daily News reports that,

If an adult wishes to have unrestricted access to the Internet, service may be obtained from an Internet Service Provider in password protected manner after making a payment. However, the user is responsible for use of the service in responsible manner and should ensure the filtered websites are not accessible to children.

The irony here is in the proposed firewall of “pornographic” content. A password. How original and foolproof is that? As Lirneasia correctly notes

Assumed strict enforcement, this can lead to the ban of not just YouTube but Gmail and Yahoomail also, because pornography videos can easily be distributed via e-mail.

Add all instant messaging applications, P2P file sharing, Google Docs, Box.net and related online file storage services. Apparently though,

This decision was taken as there has been increasing concern about the exposure of children to obscene and pornographic materials via the internet. The proliferation of internet raises serious problems concerning unrestricted access to obscene and pornographic materials, especially by children.

The TRCSL directive goes on to ask ISPs to “filter the websites featuring Obscene/phonographic (sic) /sexually explicit materials”. And here I would have thought that Mervyn Silva’s profanities plastered across the media and the behaviour of his son, Keheliya Rambukwella’s shenanigans at Royal College with his son and – how to politely put it – our mentally challenged Foreign Minister’s notion that it’s perfectly alright to take his children to diplomatic functions conveyed a far more detrimental message, that it is fine for absolute power to corrupt absolutely with complete impunity.

In response to the creative uses it was put to by the children in Abuja, Negroponte’s XO laptop went on to feature a porn filter. 

What we in Sri Lanka desperately need today is a “President Rajapakse epiphanic directive of the day” spam filter to spare us from the ignominy of living under a regime that is increasingly and insufferably Victorian.