Sri Lanka social media shutdown raises fears on free expression

“Nationwide Internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” NetBlocks said in a tweet. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 April 2019
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Sri Lanka social media shutdown raises fears on free expression

  • By blocking Facebook, Sri Lanka also shut down the leading social network’s “safety check” feature that enables users to communicate with friends and family after a disaster
  • According to NetBlocks, a digital rights and cybersecurity group, the shutdown in Sri Lanka may prove counterproductive by taking down sources of authentic information

WASHINGTON: Sri Lanka’s decision to block social media following deadly suicide attacks highlights a growing distrust of online platforms, but critics said the move is likely to restrict the flow of important news and information as well as abusive content.
The move comes amid growing frustration by governments around the world with Internet platforms over the propagation of misinformation and incitements of violence.
According to the digital rights group NetBlocks, Sri Lanka blocked Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, Viber, WhatsApp and YouTube following the Easter bombings targeting churches and hotels.
Sri Lanka’s move was the second time it has blocked social networks, following similar actions after an outbreak of violence in 2018.
The decision highlights the troubled reputation of mostly American-owned social media companies, which several years ago had been seen as a force for freedom of information.
“Governments around the world, including those who exploit social media and state media... have come to realize the risks associated with platforms such as WhatsApp,” Jennifer Grygiel, a professor of communication at Syracuse University, said in an email.
“They are quick to take action now in the wake of terrorism to prevent rumors and social unrest, but the ease at which they are able to shut down platforms also unveils how much power and control governments have over these companies and the need to protect the free press.”
According to NetBlocks, a digital rights and cybersecurity group, the shutdown in Sri Lanka may prove counterproductive by taking down sources of authentic information.
“Nationwide Internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” NetBlocks said in a tweet.
“This allows third parties to exploit the situation for political gain and profit.”
Sri Lankan authorities’ pledge to maintain the shutdown until its investigation is complete is troublesome, said Amy Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“We all have some sympathy when there is a terrorist attack, but what if it were a democracy protest in Iran?” Lehr asked.
“Who decides what is an emergency?“

By blocking Facebook, Sri Lanka also shut down the leading social network’s “safety check” feature that enables users to communicate with friends and family after a disaster.
“These attacks are horrific. And people need social media platforms to obtain accurate information & to contact loved ones,” tweeted Allie Funk, a researcher with the human rights group Freedom House.
“The government’s decision to restrict these apps is a dangerous one.”
Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights group, said there are no easy solutions to misinformation on social media.
“Blocking websites can fuel disinformation by leaving journalists and other credible sources of information with fewer avenues to reach people and to debunk falsehoods,” she said. “We need more nuanced solutions.”
Prior research has indicated that Internet and social media blackouts may lead to more, not less, violence.
Stanford University researcher Jan Rydzak said in a February 2019 paper based on findings from India that “shutdowns are found to be much more strongly associated with increases in violent collective action than with non-violent mobilization.”
Efforts to regulate social media have picked up since the mosque shootings last month in New Zealand livestreamed on Facebook and reposted on other apps. Facebook and others struggled to remove various versions of the video.
The missteps of social media, however, have put governments on alert and sparked efforts to control information flows.

Misinformation is often seen during moments of crisis, including during last week’s fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
The ban in Sri Lanka “is the inevitable but unfortunate consequence of the platforms’ inability to stop the online amplification of conspiracy and outrage,” said Karen Kornbluh, a former White House policy director who now heads the Digital Innovation Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund.
“This shows the false premise of the platforms’ mantra that any change in their practices will squash free speech... if they continue to turbo-charge disinformation this will lead to less online free speech.”
Lehr said one of the challenges for social platforms using algorithmic feeds is how to prevent false and abusive content from going viral.
“It’s not always a matter of blocking hate speech but also de-amplifying it,” she said.
“I’d like to see us get to a place where a shutdown isn’t necessary, but the social media platforms need to rebuild public trust.”


Netflix to roll out cheaper mobile-only plan for India

Updated 18 July 2019
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Netflix to roll out cheaper mobile-only plan for India

  • India is among the last big growth markets for the company
  • Netflix faces competition from Amazon’s Prime Video and Walt Disney Co’s Hotstar
Netflix said on Wednesday it would roll out a lower-priced mobile-only plan in India within the next three months to tap into a price-sensitive market at a time the streaming company is losing customers in its home turf.
India is among the last big growth markets for the company, where it faces competition from Amazon.com Inc’s Prime Video and Hotstar, a video streaming platform owned by Walt Disney Co’s India unit.
Netflix lost US streaming customers for the first time in eight years on Wednesday, when it posted quarterly results. It also missed targets for new subscribers overseas.
“India is a mobile-first nation, where many first-time users are experiencing the Internet on their phones. In such a scenario, a mobile-only package makes sense to target new users,” said Tarun Pathak, analyst at Counterpoint Research.
The creator of “Stranger Things” and “The Crown” said in March that it was testing a 250-rupee ($3.63) monthly subscription for mobile devices in India, where data plans are among the cheapest in the world.
The country figures prominently in Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings’ global expansion plans.
“We believe this plan, which will launch in the third quarter, will be an effective way to introduce a larger number of people in India to Netflix and to further expand our business,” the company said in a letter to investors released late on Wednesday.
Netflix currently offers three monthly plans in India, priced between 500 rupees ($7.27) and 800 rupees $11.63).
It has created a niche following in the country by launching local original shows like the thriller “Sacred Games” and dystopian tale “Leila,” which feature popular Bollywood actors.
The second season of “Sacred Games” is set to release in August.
In contrast, Hotstar, which also offers content from AT&T Inc’s HBO and also streams live sports, charges 299 rupees ($4.35) per month. Amazon bundles its video and music streaming services with its Prime membership.
“We’ve been seeing nice steady increases in engagement with our Indian viewers that we think we can keep building on. Growth in that country is a marathon, so we’re in it for the long haul,” Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said.