Facebook blocks could open the door to online censorship

On Easter Sunday, after the devastating attacks that killed more than 300 people, Sri Lanka closed a large part of its Internet. The president's secretary, Udaya Seneviratne, said the officials had decided to "temporarily block" sites and applications such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube and Viber until the investigations were completed, which they said was a precautionary measure to stop misinformation . In a statement, Seneviratne said that "they decided to temporarily block social networking sites" and plans to reinstate them as soon as the investigations into the events are completed.

It is part of a broader pattern of media censorship and coercion in Sri Lanka and abroad. The country has spent years blocking news sites, and closed social networks briefly in 2018 after the violence of the mafia against Muslim minority groups broke out. Sri Lanka's movements against the media have been widely condemned, but the closures of social networks are less controversial. After years of intense warnings about misinformation on Facebook, closing the site in an emergency does not seem so unreasonable. It is a new understanding of the role of government online, and for activists against censorship, one that is scary.

The initial reactions of the media to the closure of Sri Lanka focused mainly on the well-established dangers of unmoderated platforms. An article by The Guardian noted that the situation demonstrated how "the failure of technology companies based in the United States to control misinformation, extremism and incitement to violence has exceeded the declared benefits of social media. " The codirector of Recode and New York Times Kara Swisher confessed that when she first learned of the blockages, her reaction was: "Good".

Not everyone applauded the decision, but there is a clear trend towards emergency limits on the flow of information, which worries many activists. "It's alarming to see the practice of blocking social networks normalized around the world as a policy tool," says Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at the non-profit organization Freedom House, a US-based organization conducts research on political freedom and human rights. .

Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Without Borders, agrees: "We are seeing a growing acceptance of widespread censorship as a response to hatred and misinformation" – either through large-scale service stops or regulation.

The censors are responding to real problems: social networks have been increasingly "armed", in the words of Owono, to attack minority groups in countries like Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka. "Two years ago, it was easy to dismiss the justifications for the false news and hate used by repressive regimes, because democracies showed the example by not doing so, and both were not so challenging at the time," she says. "Things are different now: recent legislation in the EU and genocide in Myanmar are giving more confidence to governments around the world to censure in the name of fighting" false news "and hatred."

Concerns about online misinformation have already become law in many countries. Sri Lanka is not the only country that blocks Facebook during a crisis. Facebook's transparency report shows that other countries such as Cameroon, Indonesia and Iran have also seen Internet interruptions, according to a Facebook transparency report. France, Singapore and Russia have passed laws designed to curb "false news" on social networks. The UK recently proposed a fine on Internet platforms that do not remove harmful content. And after a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, the government blocked a handful of sites that hosted the video of the attack.

Danny O & # 39; Brien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recognizes that propaganda and misinformation are expanding for social reasons. The vast scale of the media. "In terms of the large number of people involved in that, then it's definitely a kind of quantitative difference," he says. At the same time, he points out that those who always take advantage of mass communication systems, and repressive governments do not draw a line between harmful misinformation and legitimate criticism.

"The arguments about the blocking of particular websites or the silencing of particular voices are always framed in terms of misinformation, counterterrorism and protecting the security of the population," says O & # 39; Brien. Now, governments can present these arguments with less fear of international rejection.

However, in more general terms, there is overwhelming evidence that blackouts in social networks can worsen the situation, leading to an increase in violence in parts of the world that are already struggling with limitations. freedom of the media and access to news and media resources not sponsored by the state.

According to Jan Rydzak, Stanford researcher and associate director of the university's Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi), blackouts are more often than not counterintuitive when implemented as a measure to combat misinformation or prevent unrest or violence. "This information [mis] for example, still travels in the situation of an information vacuum and at the same time, the shutdowns actually exacerbate or increase the levels of violence and not only for a single day, but for several days in a row," Rydzak said. "In combination with all the other arguments that have been formulated, if a measure like this, which is draconian in nature, has so much impact on a society and violates many fundamental human rights … why implement it?" 19659015] Rydzak said that last year there were almost 200 cases of Internet closures, mainly in India, and that number has steadily increased every year with cases all over the world. In March, Rydzak compiled one of the largest reports investigating the effects of Internet disruptions and discovered that they do little to extinguish the violence and misinformation governments use to combat. Extremist groups often avoid stops by using VPN, according to BuzzFeed News and continue to post false news. In turn, these closures only leave the elderly and those who do not know how to use the VPN in the dark.

The government of Sri Lanka It has a long and ragged history when it comes to press freedom. Journalists have often faced intimidation and violence, and the government itself has control of other media resources in the country. Shortly after the 2015 election in Sri Lanka of President Maithripala Sirisena, media freedom improved, despite being deeply limited, according to Freedom House. However, in 2019, Sri Lanka still occupies a low place in the World Press Freedom Index.

"It's a media problem rather than a social media problem," says Shahbaz. "That's why people feel they have to go to WhatsApp and Facebook to get the real news, because they can not trust what the more traditional forms of the media say."

According to Rydzak, platforms and governments must make a variety of changes to stop the spread of misinformation in times of crisis. Moderation of content is key, and Rydzak cited a decision by Facebook last summer that limited the forwarding of messages on WhatsApp. These forwarding limits stop the spread of false information by limiting the time a person can send a message.

Both Rydzak and Shahbaz agreed that literacy education in digital media should be more widespread to combat misinformation. However, Shahbaz said that "media literacy is very important, but at the same time, the reason why people depend so much on social networks in many of these countries is because traditional media … are very restricted." The government or other political actors play a very negative role in shaping public discourse. "

But Internet freedom groups believe that there is a solution that does not give governments direct control over the web. past, article 19 non-profit proposed an independent "Social Media Council" that would make recommendations to platforms based on a letter of ethics, Owono points out a symposium that the Internet Without Borders helped organize last year in Cameroon, bringing together officials governmental, private companies and local civil society organizations.

It is difficult to disprove the false news, and experts suggest that a change will not solve the greatest threat in general. "There is an idea that closures are an instrument to interrupt the dissemination of erroneous information, but by interrupting service in such incidents, governments are denying their citizens access to communication tools at a time when they need them the most ". "Shahbaz said.

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