June 12, 2007 (LBO) – The theme of this column has been public policy about infrastructure. This time, it will not be about infrastructure as such, but about the ability to engage in public discussion about public policy in this thrice blessed isle.
I am responsible for a website called www.LIRNEasia.net. Over the past two and half years it has built up a significant international audience, on the basis of the over 550 posts (average of over 18 posts a month) we have made and over 3,100 comments that those posts and other comments have attracted. The website is not a static mode of disseminating information, but an interactive public space, albeit one that is provided by a non-governmental organization.
The blue is the most important column as it shows the total number of unique visitors per quarter (around 200 a day now). The orange is also significant because it shows the people who make return visits.
For a technical website focusing in telecom policy and regulation, this is pretty good. Very few of the posts are about Sri Lanka though a large number of comments are from those who appear to be Sri Lankans living in the country and abroad, writing on one thread. A majority of the readers of the website are from abroad. Its success is possibly as much due to its blog format that allows easy interaction as to its content.
Anonymity/pseudonymity of blog comments
Recently, the blog has become controversial. Since April 2006, one thread has been used by various persons to discuss Sri Lankan ICT policy issues, with emphasis on the appropriate standards for using Sinhala in computing.
Not all the comments on this thread have been rational and civilized and some commenters have engaged in personal vilification.
The controversy hit a peak around the time of Professor V.K. Samaranayake’s felicitation event at the University of Colombo in early June and his subsequent demise.
It is fair to say that Professor Samaranayake bore the brunt of the personal attacks on the website, though the President of the Maldives, Mr Milinda Moragoda and I, among others, had also been attacked at various times.
Several people wanted posts they considered offensive deleted and others wanted anonymous posts deleted. People who don’t know how blogs work and have no experience with, or commitment to, public discourse, have tried to associate me with the nasty comments on the blog, even going to the extent of complaining to our international partners.
LIRNEasia’s consistent position was that it had neither the resources nor the desire to exert editorial control over the blog.
The webmaster did make periodic pleas that commenters should stay on topic and maintain civility, but we were very clear that there was no editorial control and no prohibitions against anonymous or pseudonymous postings.
I personally had little use for anonymous or pseudonymous commenters, stating on the blog thread in question that I did not give much credence to people with paperbags over their heads.
Yet, we did not delete any posts, anonymous, psuedonymous or otherwise (with a single exception to prevent people from getting misled by a fake announcement).
A public space is not one where I expect everyone to follow my personal norms of behavior. Plus, identity is fluid on the Internet.
But recently, an incident occurred that caused me to change my personal views on anonymous and pseudonymous postings.
License down the throat
Dr Harsha de Silva hosts a primetime economics program on MTV NewsFirst called BizFirst. Several months ago, Harsha and I had a good discussion on the show about a proposed auction of taxi licenses by the Board of Investment (BOI).
We were teaching a course on economics of infrastructure at that time and had investigated the design of the auction as part of our preparation for teaching.
The auction was nicely designed but just did not make sense because no scarce resource was being auctioned and the market was one that did not meet the criteria of a natural monopoly, justifying the auctioning off of a concession.
All this we talked about on camera. The auction failed for the lack of bidders, primarily because Treasury refused to grant the promised duty-free concessions to the winner.
Recently, I heard from very reliable sources that a very senior official at the BOI, appointed by this government, was very angry about the failure of his pet project and had announced his intention of shoving the licenses down the throats of all who were responsible for the failure of the auction.
Dr de Silva’s throat and mine are said to be on the list because we criticized the auction.
Actually, we held up the design of the auction as a model; but we ridiculed the whole idea of conducting an auction for taxi licenses and even stated that duty concessions would be unfair to the present suppliers of taxi services.
If I contributed to the failure of that silly auction, I am happy.
But the larger issue is the state of public discourse in this country.
If people like Dr de Silva and I are threatened with physical violence by senior government officials simply for expressing our professional opinions on matters of public policy, something is very wrong.
This threat suggests that the roles of anonymity and pseudonymity in public discourse in this country has to be rethought.
At the time of the second JVP insurrection only the gonibillas needed bags over their heads; now it seems that public intellectuals, even those who comment on relatively uncontroversial economic matters (not the emotional hot-button issues of war and peace that invite charges of treason from the highest levels of government), require them.
I am accustomed to this kind of bellicosity. In 1987 I was unjustly removed from an announced speaking slot at the annual sessions of the Computer Society of Sri Lanka by the powers that be for daring to help a small guy in his fight against a then major computer company.
In the early nineties, I was threatened with deportation by a major telephone company in the United States (but the responsible academic leaders backed me up, unlike in Sri Lanka in 1987).
I had the option of taking a job in the United States in 1987 (which I did after abandoning plans to build a Sri Lanka based ICT policy consulting firm because of the CSSL incident among other reasons) and I have options now if the odds are high that a license will be rammed down my throat by the BOI official or his goons.
But there must be solutions for those who lack options, yet wish to engage in high-risk public discourse, which in this country can mean any discourse.
Short of providing paper bags as optional headgear at TV talk shows, we should at least allow for anonymous and pseudonymous comments in fora such as LBO and definitely in the blogsphere.