A recent week-long shutdown of several popular Web-based services in Sri Lanka was intended to clamp down on mob violence, but the government action had several unintended consequences.
The shutdown, ordered by President Maithripala Sirisena’s administration, affected Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Web-based calling service Viber. The services shut down on March 7 and were restored on March 14 and 15.
The government’s tried to cut off communications between organizers of violent mobs, but the shutdown had a huge impact on a wide swath of Internet users, said Sagarika Wickramasekera, president of Internet Society’s Sri Lanka chapter.
Because of the loss of social media and calling services, “those who had loved ones in the violence-ridden areas had to go through stressful period of time without any contact with them,” she said.
Facebook-based volunteer groups, civil society activists and other social movements lost contact with their audiences, she added. “This reduced the circulation of validated content and education hence the peace and harmony,” Wickramasekera added. “People had to rely on rumors.”
Businesses and other organizations use WhatsApp and Viber as productivity tools, and their customer communications were disrupted. Small businesses and home-based workers “who were totally depended on social media marketing to sell their products lost contact with the customers,” added Wickramasekera, assistant network manager at the SriPalee Campus for the University of Colombo.
In addition, many Sri Lankan families use WhatsApp and Viber to call friends and family overseas, she said.
Most private schools and some public schools also use WhatsApp and Viber as their preferred method of parent-teacher communications. Schools use Facebook as a public notice board for sports practices and events. “These activities were interrupted,” Wickramasekera said.
Internet Society partner NetBlocks, which researches the global flow of data and universal access to information, pegged the economic cost of the partial shutdown in Sri Lanka at USD $30 million during the shutdown from 7-15 March 2018. [Note: NetBlocks is developing an online tool to assess the cost of Internet shutdowns with the support of the Internet Society.]
The government’s stated reason for partial shutdown was mob violence in parts of the country.
The government accused the services of amplifying hate speech and allowing groups to coordinate attacks against Muslim residents, who make up about 10 percent of the island nation’s population. Rising tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and minority Muslims in recent weeks have led to riots in the district of Kandy, with at least two deaths and major property damage reported.
In addition to the four services being unavailable, Internet access was slowed in some regions, Wickramasekera said.
She downplayed the role of the four blocked services in the recent violence. “There was no such evidence that violence occurred due to social media,” she said. “This unfortunate incident was orchestrated by a well-organized group with very evident political links and motives, not the general public.”
She called on the government to sponsor new programs to educate students and the general public on the safe use of technology and social media. And the government should reach out to civil society groups to better deal with ethnic strife, she recommended. [Read the March 14 statement of the ISOC Sri Lanka Chapter.]
To learn more about Internet shutdowns and their social and economic cost, please see:
- Internet Society Policy Brief: Internet Shutdowns
- Internet Society Perspectives on Internet Content Blocking
- Internet and Human Rights Resource Center