Website Registration Fail
The government has requested all ‘news casting’ websites that discuss Sri Lanka to register.
This seems to involve organisations like Lanka eNews, but also blogs, foreign outlets like the BBC, and possible Facebook pages or presumably Twitter feeds. Their technical requirements make about as much sense as the policy. Thankfully this is only a request, not a law.
Let us look at what the Media Ministry has requested: “The Ministry of Mass Media and Information has decided to register all the news casting websites operated within or outside Sri Lanka publishing news on Sri Lanka and its citizens.”
Taken literally this would include political sites, travel sites, any business page that publishes news, sites for community organizations, temples, churches, etc. These do, after all, certainly publish news about Sri Lanka and its citizens. I think it might also affect sites that cover the weather.
Then take the very term site. Is that a website, a hosted blog, a Facebook page, or all of the above? The vague wording seems to cover any sort of online speech regarding the island. What if I publish a bunch of comments about Sri Lanka but do not have a site? What if I am part of a public mailing list?
Another glaring weakness is that this wording seems to cover any website in the world. Which is a lot of websites, none of whom Sri Lanka has jurisdiction over. Is Al Jazeera supposed to fill out this PDF and email it to the Ministry? If a blogger in France wants to write up a kiribath or sushi recipe should they ask the Ministry first? Can tourists write about their experiences travelling around?
I had a look at the application form and it asks for the site, a contact and IP addresses for the server and computers that access the site. Again, this is poorly thought out and makes little sense. Asking for a contact is one thing, but most sites are hosted on shared servers. There is one IP for thousands of sites. People also access sites through IP addresses shared with hundreds of users.
Furthermore, while it is admirable that government departments are getting on the net, can’t they at least implement a form that you can fill out online? Not that I am going to fill it out, but I am sure someone at the Ministry must be printing these out and filing them, which is really rather backwards. Of course, these regulations seem to have been drafted and published without any technical or even rational oversight at all. It seems that someone asked why a peon could not print out the Internet and this policy came out as a result.
The Lack Of Teeth
Which leads one to wonder why this lead balloon was even floated at all. The government gets all the bad press of engaging in censorship without really getting to do it. They can only request people to register, there is no legislation to force them to and no penalties if they do not. Like the plan to register all citizens online with mobile vans they are simply floating what they want to do without actually doing it. In the end they get all the negative press of asking for something bad and none of the pleasure of getting it.
To Register Or Not To Register?
This plan is so poorly thought out and toothless that I do not think anyone should register, nor do they really have to. If the government wants to block a site it seems that they just will. If they want an IP address of a server they can just ‘ping’ it (one line of code) or run a WHOIS search of administrative contacts. Most sites publish contact information anyways.
This latest move is not so much a threat to free speech as an embarrasment. I might be scared if they seemed to know what they were doing, but censors that know their dubious job do not tend to make requests. As it is, I actually feel sorry for the Media Ministry, trying to somehow fit the Internet into its filing cabinets.