The politics of circumvention

One of the ironies today is that some of the most vocal champions of the freedom of expression online are themselves guilty of measures to severely curtail it. And just after that first sentence, a lot of readers would turn their gaze to whatever is on the right of this column, believing as many do that what’s online is far removed from and largely peripheral to their lives. But increasingly, what is produced for or featured on the web and debated online in Tamil, Sinhala and English will shape policies and practices for a larger constituency. Our President is acutely aware of this, or at least, his advisors are.

Visiting Thailand last week, Mahinda Rajapaksa lamented that “eight websites, run by one person, are bringing evil to the country”. In general, it is unclear how informed the President really is when it comes to anything outside his sanguine cocoon of power. There may not therefore be any factual basis for the President’s statement – it could be ten websites run by three people, or four people running two websites. The point is that there are websites publishing inconvenient truths, and arbitrary diktats to register them coupled with measures to block them in Sri Lanka aren’t having the intended effect of stemming content critical of the regime blossoming in online fora. There is thus huge symbolic import in what he said in Thailand.

Last week, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster and director of the Prachatai news and commentary website, was handed down an 8 month suspended prison sentence and a 20,000 baht (around US$ 630) fine for violating Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act. Premchaiporn, who faced up to 20 years in prison, has brought into sharp focus Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, and how in that country, just transmitting content that runs foul of government carries the same penalties as creating the content – in other words, making ISPs liable for libel by just hosting contentious content, irrespective of origin. Clearly, our President would like the same sort of deeply repressive, illiberal laws to exist back home.

We came very, very close to this. In 2008, the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations gazetted by government held ISPs responsible for all content transmitted through their respective networks. In an affidavit written for a case lodged against the regulations I noted at the time that “…holding ‘broadcasters’ in Sri Lanka, including ISPs, responsible for not just user generated content, but also user generated comments to content published from other sources, is a regulatory nightmare and technically impossible to comply with”. It is utterly naïve to believe that though the regulations didn’t come into effect, the freedom of expression online is secure and guaranteed in Sri Lanka today. The President’s thinly veiled desire is for the birth of Premchaiporn’s in Sri Lanka – online intermediaries, not unlike myself who curate content online, and ISPs, incarcerated and penalised for the generating, disseminating and archiving content perceived to be against the Rajapaksa regime.

And while this must be resisted with every sinew of our democratic fabric, we must also be equally critical of the ready support for such resistance from the likes of the US and EU. The EU’s export of deeply invasive and very powerful surveillance technology to some of the most repressive regimes today runs completely counter to a human rights agenda that seeks to actively support dissidents and in some cases, regime change. Over a cordial Twitter exchange with the US Embassy in Colombo last week, I flagged that their emphasis on social media training in Sri Lanka needed to embrace online safety and security aspects. The Embassy agreed, but I noted the irony in what they supported in Sri Lanka (and in a much larger way, through the development of circumvention technologies for use in the Middle East) with just one recent story in the UK Wired magazine of a surveillance architecture being set up in the US so vast and invasive, it is truly mind-boggling. What the NSA is to US citizens, the TID and CID are for us.

It’s not just well known activists who need to be worried. A simple like on Facebook, a thumbs up on YouTube, embedding a video off Vimeo, re-tweeting something controversial, starring a blog post on WordPress, simply forwarding an SMS, posting a comment online or forwarding an attachment over email – these are all actions that can be easily logged, geo-located and acted upon however our government sees fit. It is possible to argue that in the EU, the UK and the US, all of which are increasing digital surveillance on citizens, there is a great degree of open debate, with those who stridently oppose the erosion of civil liberties not at any real or perceived risk of losing their lives, being abducted, or imprisoned.

Sri Lanka, free to cherry pick from the West’s worst practices, will justify a creeping encroachment of online dissent under the guise of national security. Resistance must be careful not to uncritically and openly embrace the ready support of Western governments. Ben Ali wasn’t ousted because of external pressure. Our government’s worst excesses must be resisted, and change encouraged.

But we must own our words and our actions.

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Published in the print edition of The Nation, 3 June 2012.

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