Imminent loss of Internet free speech in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan political voices on the Internet are now running on borrowed time.

I believe that the present administration will start ordering ISPs to block “undesirable” web addresses within the next year, now that India has set a precedent for the same. Free blogging services will most likely be targets. Based on the present administration’s behavior toward the press, satellite TV companies and more recently regular TV channels, the Internet seems to be the next logical target.

I believe in non-violent change. The only tool for non-violent change is freedom of speech. Once that tool is lost, all is lost — the public has been both physically and intellectually disarmed and tranquilized. This is step #2 towards totalitarianism:

Step #1: Private property ownership becomes conditional (the state can take away private property at arbitrary whim)
Step #2: Loss of freedom of speech (the state decrees that you have all the freedom of speech you want, so long as you do not publicize certain state-decided “bad things”)

Priority

Preservation of free speech should be the Sri Lankan Internet community’s number one priority in the coming months, since the loss of the tool itself is a far greater loss than ANYTHING that the tool may produce. Blogging is a medium hardly known to the Sri Lankan public — any attack on it will most likely generate NO controversy. It is up to the blogging community to defend its own medium. It needs to anticipate the coming action and act preemptively.

I’ve been told that a number of young Sri Lankan bloggers met recently to discuss “what can be done” about the present situation in the country. I would tell them that the first order of business is to not lose the tool. Write to traditional print media about blogging and it’s importance as a tool of free speech compared to other mass media. When one medium comes under attack, use the remaining media to defend it. In this case, Sinhalese print media is best (question: is blogging called “Web Lekhana Kalaawa” in Sinhalese?).

Censoring blogs is suppression of INDIVIDUAL voices — it is worse than any action against large scale media institutions. A blog is one of the most effective ways an individual citizen can make himself heard.

Internet freedom is preserved in the United States because of a powerful pro-freedom/anti-censorship lobby that galvanizes into action at the tiniest sign that the U.S. government is planning anything even remotely related to Internet censorship. The Sri Lankan Internet community now needs to be on a similar hair-trigger alert.

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8 Responses to Imminent loss of Internet free speech in Sri Lanka

  1. liberated says:

    Spot on Chum! The GOSL is shutting down cable tv and imposing taxes on “foreign” programs so logically the next step will be to curb internet freedoms. I AM JUST SICK OF THIS country!

    so we might as well resign ourselves to learning more about the insides of our own little well, cos the outside world is starting to BLUR!! help us!! SOS!!!

    Democracy my A&*! This is absolute tyranny!

  2. internet_gunrunner says:

    There are people with adequate technical skills in the private sector and private citizens who can and will find ways to circumvent these blockades. It happens in China, it will happen in India and the only thing that it accomplishes is further degradation of respect for government decrees.

    There are dozens, literally, of methods to circumvent all but the most stringent of blocks. All it will take is a little bit of technical knowhow and the ability to keep that information inside a closed group as far as possible.

    It’s not an arms race that censors can win easily without severing internet links altogether. I’d personally be motivated to setup something to circumvent these blocks should they ever be implemented in SL. Will they ever be able to enforce it? I doubt very much that they can.

  3. liberated says:

    well its good to know…but the point is that censorship is not the way to go. We are supposedly a democratic country, and therefore should have the right freedom of expression, because essentially blogging is about the individual right to self expression.

  4. poetlost says:

    I’ve begun to get worried over such things as well.

    Firstly, I’d like to know what the legistlation overlooks the workings of the internet in Sri Lanka. Surely, there is an act that acknowledges the flow of information on the internet with regard to the state and how the state will deal with it. I am going to be contacting a few lawyers soon because, like you said, it would be the final nail on the coffin for free speech.

    We can’t let this happen.

  5. sittingnut says:

    while we need to be vigilant lets not get carried away with exaggerations.

    in both tv levy and cable tv cases it is not clear whether it was an attempt at censorship or something else. ( in case of tv levy ,the way some well known actors and directors are talking in tv talks shows, i am getting convinced it is a ultra stupid attempt at protectionism brought in at their request)
    it is premature to call sl a tyranny.

    as for blog blocking, as internet_gunrunner says it cannot be realistically implemented ‘without severing internet links altogether’. see the ‘how to bypass’ section of indian bloggers against censorship campaign’s wiki.

  6. Sam says:

    I don’t think even president restrict Internet, there will be big effect in Sri Lanka. That can actually increase his popularity in immediate term. Majority will love him for that.

    Just face the fact – we (majority of Sri Lankan) don’t like freedom of speech in the first place. Internet users in Sri Lanka much more open minded than the majority – But even they don’t know how to keep up a decent discussion. Look around Sri Lankan Blogs – I have seen enough blogs asking others molest themselves or have intercourse with their mother, just because they don’t agree with comments.

    Second we (majority of Sri Lankan) don’t like or scared of Internet. Or we (majority of Sri Lankan) don’t get any practical use from internet except email and pornography. We actually think internet is something that I can go to ‘Nenasala’ and spend one hour a week ‘Watch it’. One day a mother told me crying her son is using the internet and she is so scared.

    If president restrict web sites, he will defiantly start that with some pornographic content because that is the shortcut to get support from majority (we are religious freaks). If that is about controlling once underwear, then we are for it! After he build up the mechanism first time – rest is very easy.
    Bottom line is Majority of Sri Lankan like to see president do something. He needs to do something. Internet is something that can affect the least number of people – just like capable TV with fashion TV – and at the same time get maximum output from it.

    America has freedom of speech because it is guaranteed by First Amendment. But we don’t have something similar – simple reason is we don’t care – freedom of speech is not a popular topic like fertilizer subsidiary.

  7. Tor says:

    Don’t be sad people simply run http://tor.eff.org/download.html
    And Privoxy and tell the GOSL to “piss in the wind” or even better “f@!k itself” along with the chinese…..

  8. internet_gunrunner says:

    Tor: While I applaud your comment in the context of educating people about Tor and like products, a word of warning is essential. There are too many selfish idiots (yes, Sri Lankans too) who use Tor for everything, including P2P downloads. This happens right now, today.

    Remember, if you use Tor, learn how to use it properly – the SL government isn’t going to start by blocking all websites, so just configure your software to only use Tor for blocked sites and make the network less congested for people with legitimate need.

    Sorry, that’s a pet peeve. I have seen more than a few people use Tor to cover up their Britney Spears mp3 habit and it is mildly annoying. Onion routers are a limited resource and are run by volunteers who donate their upstream bandwidth. Anyway, moving on…

    Sam: The very article that you link to in reference to the First Amendment has a number of precedents where the freedom of speech was limited in America. Permit me to quote “Thus, the Supreme Court effectively shaped the First Amendment in such a manner as to permit a multitude of restrictions on speech.”. I understand where you’re coming from, but please accept that America (like everywhere else) has its share of problems with free speech in practice. In Sri Lanka, we have our own set of problems. Pointing fingers and making generalizations about the majority of Sri Lankans is (IMHO) hardly a productive course of action to take. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was not a typical example of America, nor is (I would suggest) the blogs that you’ve been reading as examples of “how to carry out a decent discussion” a typical example of the Sri Lankan internet user.

    poetlost: AFAIK, there is no legislation which explicitly guarantees (or denies) freedom of speech on the internet. However, I am not a lawyer.

    liberated: Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, I am pretty sure that ISPs can rewrite their terms of service to deny access to any number of sites/resources should they choose to do so. Also, it is not incumbent on the government or an ISP to provide a platform for anyone to voice their opinion. Blocking blogspot does not necessarily limit your freedom of speech on the internet, it merely limits your ability to use blogspot. There is an important distinction to be drawn between the two actions, if you care to see it.

    Doesn’t make it any less of an outrage should it happen, though – it’s a pointless waste of resources, because it is (at present) unenforceable.

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