Monitoring cyberspace to regulate anti-govt. content

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya

As investigations into the alleged proliferation of anti-government content through cellular networks and the internet continue, Government departments seemingly mull over a mechanism to regulate new age media, used by over 14 million Sri Lankans.

In the days following last month’s Presidential election, a few people were arrested by the police for allegedly sending out text messages to cellular telephone users decrying the outcome of the poll. They were purportedly writing similar dissenting messages on social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

A Government representative said over the weekend that those arrested would remain behind bars and that they would be prosecuted if found guilty. “A few people are under arrest and action will follow after investigations are completed,” Lakshman Hulugalle, director, Media Centre for National Security, told the Sunday Times, without divulging details, including the number of people in custody. Newly appointed director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), Anusha Palpita, who holds the dual charge of the Government Information Department, appears to be in favour of controlling content in cyberspace. “We do not have such regulations yet. But I think there should be a proper system of monitoring and regulating content,” Palpita told the Sunday Times.

The nature of content - whether political, cultural, religious or pornographic – should be checked if they “create problems in society,” Palpita said. Although the Government had asked Internet Service Providers (ISPs) last July to control the distribution of pornography online, sources in the telecommunications industry said, the move has been only partly successful because big money is paid by viewers of pornography.

Palpita denied media reports suggesting that Chinese engineers were assisting the TRC in framing an electronic surveillance model for various kinds of content. “These stories are fabricated,” Palpita said. He also denied reports that the TRC had, post-poll, tracked down Internet Protocol addresses of people who allegedly wrote messages critical of the Government on Facebook and Twitter.

Sources in the telecommunications industry said the police might have acted on complaints made by people who received such text messages on cellular telephones and/or read them online. The sources added that the computer forensics unit of the Sri Lanka Police is possibly investigating the matter.

According to the existing e-government policy, public sector institutions are allowed to have their “own policies in assigning, controlling and monitoring internet access,” while following guidelines specified in the Government Information Security Policy. “Our national interest has to be protected and therefore it is important to have a debate on the subject of content regulation. Some civil citizens’ organisations have been urging us to work out a system,” Charitha Herath, media consultant, Ministry of Mass Media and Information told the Sunday Times. As of now, the ministry’s media monitoring division closely follows local media content and also foreign content on Sri Lanka.

There are over 13 million cellular phone users and close to one million internet users in the country, the telecommunications industry estimates. Political campaigns for the 2010 presidential election were carried out widely through new age media.

In the run up to Presidential poll, supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gen. (retired) Sarath Fonseka sent text messages on cellular telephones seeking votes for their respective candidates. Numerous netizens from both camps flooded cyberspace with propaganda content.

If however in the coming months a censorship regime for online content is implemented, private news websites are likely to be most affected.

There are a few even within the Government set-up who felt stakeholders should find a common ground. “The Government, ISPs and citizens’ bodies could sit together and work out some kind of a code of ethics,” an official of the Information and Communication Technology Agency told the Sunday Times, on condition of anonymity.

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