Sri Lanka’s 1.6m Web user freedom threatened, are we to just go offline?

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

By Joseph Thavaraja

The post-war outlook of internet freedom in Sri Lanka is ‘not bright.’ In addition, Sri Lanka needs to take immediate steps to legislate for ‘broad privacy protection.’

An Internet Freedom of Expression (IFoE) study by Colombo based Centre for Policy Alternatives and Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit –Colombo (FNST) released on August 2 calls Sri Lanka to take immediate steps to legislate for broad privacy protection . It also wants service providers to provide clear privacy policies.

According to Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL), Sri Lanka now has 16 licensed ISPs. TRCSL says 249,756 internet and email subscribers are in the country (2009). Also, the country had only 150000 internet users in 2001. But according to the World Bank, Sri Lanka now reports a ten-fold increase of net users (to 1,163,500 by Sept. 2009) with a 5.5% internet penetration rate. The projection for 2010 is 8.3% (1,776,200). In contrast, mobile penetration is estimated to be 68%, with nine operators.

Interestingly, for the first time, the TRCSL has begun monitoring the quality of service (QoS) of the provision of Broadband internet services by Operators. The TRCSL uses a newly established Unit for this purpose. According to TRC, the ‘new Unit is equipped with apparatus to observe a wide variety of broadband services that includes ADSL, WiMAX and HSPA.’  The main purpose of this Unit is to keep ‘under surveillance the quality of broadband services encountered by subscribers in the country’.

In a way, this step is vital step in that, broadband operators have acquired the habit of hyping their capabilities in their promotions- for instance, LIRNEASIA has identified that the two top mobile broadband dongle providers (HSPA) can in reality, provide only 20% of the speed that they regularly claim to provide in their ads.

“Service providers need to provide clear and accessible privacy policies so consumers are informed of their privacy rights. Efforts to block websites and filter content have to be catalogued and published. There needs to be an independent third party who can monitor such moves and the implementation of any privacy policies” continues the CPA FNST in-depth study.  The report also stresses urgent need for strengthening the laws of the country on Internet FOE.

Though Sri Lankan law does not specifically target online content, Internet users have to operate within a ‘restrictive legal framework’, with (a) host of legislative provisions that currently limit freedom of expression, the study adds. Sri Lanka’s FOE canons are broadly dividable to two schemata as ‘general laws’ and ‘laws relating to national security. ‘But unlike in places like Australia, France and the UK where the proposed (monitoring) measures are announced publicly and debated vigorously, in Sri Lanka, “laws are made in a culture of secrecy, there is very little opportunity to meaningfully influence the law making process and worse often what is legal and permissible and what happens in reality are two different things.”Thus, it is possible for civil society to lobby law makers and regulators and actually impact the policy making process” the study stresses.

Delving on the gaping void in the right to privacy of Sri Lankan online users, the report says that there are no legislative provisions that protect general information gathering and handling. “Under the Roman Dutch common law of Sri Lanka the right to privacy is protected in specific instances. However there is no right to privacy under the Constitution of Sri Lanka. There are also no legislative provisions that protect general information gathering and handling. The Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act No. 25 of 1991 (As Amended) (Sri Lanka) and the Computer Crimes Act No 24 of 2007 (Sri Lanka) provides limited protection to Internet users from surveillance and other forms of intercepting communications. However both the Acts have provisions that allow law enforcement agencies and relevant Ministers to intercept communications without any apparent restrictions or guidelines on their general power to do so” the report adds.

Despite the continuous advances in mobile telephony tech, the broadband and internet infrastructure is still ‘underdeveloped’ in Sri Lanka. Further, as most of the users have to overcome their English language issues and even the Sinhala & Tamil Unicode interfaces in which one can read HTML pages in native language scripts/embedded fonts are still far from perfect, mass internet activism and advocacy has a long way to go in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, if interpreted well, the CPA-FNST in-depth study could be used as a promising alternative point of entry to a domain which needs to be safeguarded-and safeguarded well.

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