Development of Lankan news distribution on the Internet

By Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga

The .LK was registered in June 1990 and is one of the older top-level domains. To mark the 20th anniversary, the LK Domain Registry will hold a conference on the inception, history and current status of the Internet on June 28-29.

Twenty years ago there was very little choice to obtain news about Lanka via the foreign print or TV media. Although there was a war going on in Lanka, the media in USA hardly paid any attention to the country. Those of us living abroad had to depend on the BBC World Service on shortwave radio or relatively expensive phone calls home to get news.

The Internet started in 1983 and soon after most academics in the scientific fields started using e-mail to communicate. In 1986 a few graduate students led by Gihan Dias started SLNet - an e-mail list through which those on the list could post and share any news they had obtained with other members on the list.

Sometime in 1988 I joined the SLNet list after it had become more popular by Nimal Ratnayake posting news on Lanka from the BBC World Service listened to via a shortwave radio. He used to record and painstakingly transcribe any report on Lanka, type it up and post it to SLNet.

CompuServe was the only online news service at the time. One could dial into it at 1200 bps and read wire stories from many sources. Based on keywords set up, it selected stories from Newswire, and made them available. I started editing and posting the interesting wire stories to SLNet. Before posting to SLNet I had a habit of passing the stories through an UNIX sed script which removed the Sri from Sri Lanka, replaced Sinhalese with Sinhala and Tamil with Thamil. About a year after starting to post daily to SLNet, I can remember someone asking on SLNet why all the Wire reports used Lanka rather than Sri Lanka.

The Sunday Times first online edition: February 18, 1996

I do wish to point out that the name Lanka was used on the Armorial Ensign of Ceylon adopted in 1954 as well as all definitive coins issued from 1963 to 1971 which had this emblem. It may have influenced in some way the adoption of the letters LK for Sri Lanka in 1974 (ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) as the official two-letter extension for the country. SL was given to Sierra Leone. ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 was adopted for the Internet country code for top level domains. I am glad that .Lanka is now being adopted as the equivalent Sinhala extension.

SLNet was administered informally by a set of volunteers and responsibility was transferred as needed. SLNet was unmoderated at first. Then one member experimented writing an automated programme to reply to all postings much to the annoyance of everyone else. This was long before the existence of SPAM filters. SLNet was forced to be moderated.

A USENET bulletin board named the "soc.culture-sri-lanka" was created in 1990, for discussions on everything Lankan without moderation. That soapbox soon became too noisy.

News was posted to SLNet faster than it could reach the Sri Lanka Embassy in USA via telex from the Foreign Ministry in Colombo. I remember phoning Willie Mendis who was Minister Counsellor at the Embassy, after hearing of the assassination of Ranjan Wijeratne in March 1991. He told me that he had got a phone call from Colombo about damage to the roof of his own house from a bomb on Havelock Road but had not heard about the death of Ranjan Wijeratne.

Lanka Education And Research Network (LEARN) was set up in 1990 by Prof. Induruwa at University of Moratuwa, and established the .lk domain registry for Lanka.

The Lanka Academic Network (LAcNet) was founded in 1991 as a formal organization for SLNet, with a constitution, by laws and elected office bearers. It was funded by voluntary contributions. One of the first thing LAcNet achieved was to create an e-mail link to Lanka.

Each day Sanjiva Weerawarana used to take an international call to Colombo on a 9600 bps modem and download e-mail from overseas to the LEARN, and pickup e-mail sent from Lanka for distribution overseas. Local institutions needed to dial into LEARN to pick up and send mail.

In 1993 the browser and with it the World Wide Web (WWW) came into existence and the commercial world started to discover the use of the dot-com Internet. Academic community from all fields started using mail and the web.

The Internet finally arrived to Lanka in 1995. In September, the state-run Ceylon Daily News and Sunday Observer started online editions of their newspaper. LAcNet sponsored Sunday Times to start an online edition in March 1996. The web edition was created by Infolabs, a company started by Gihan Dias. The Island started an online edition, and some of the Sinhala and Thamil newspapers also got in on the act.

Archives are one of the greatest assets of a newspaper. Searchable archives online makes them far more useful than archives of the printed paper. However, only the Sunday Times has maintained an unbroken archive from the start of its online edition in 1996.

The world wide web on the Internet has now made news online a vastly different. There are new Lankan news servers starting up frequently. Some just use automated scripts available online, to cash in on some google adword revenue. However many give different news and opinions.

The situation today is a lot different from 20 years ago. The war is finally over and there have been no unexpectedly exploding bombs to grab the headlines. There are more choices to obtain news about Lanka than one can possibly visit. Most TV stations also have video archives. You may access more news on Lanka overseas than from Lanka. However most of the ‘must read’ stories still get distributed via e-mail. Being in Lanka, I probably seek Lankan news, less than when I was living abroad.

The writer has been online since the inception of the Internet in 1983. He is a developer of a website on Lanka and maintains a Lankan news link page at

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