UPDATE, April 3o 2019: Access to social media has been almost completely restored in Sri Lanka after the social media ban was lifted this morning, according to NetBlocks.
UPDATE, April 24 2019: Recent data from NetBlocks shows a new wave of VPN blocks in Sri Lanka, which critics describe as an “impediment to independent media coverage and free expression as Sri Lanka comes to terms with the attacks.” For more information, please read our latest article on the internet shutdown in Sri Lanka.
The original article now follows.
According to a report by NetBlocks, Sri Lankan authorities have blocked access to several social media websites in response to the bombings that targeted churches and hotels on Sunday.
The affected platforms include Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat, and Messenger. The website of VPN service TunnelBear was blocked soon after the initial shutdown.
Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN.com, said: “…for most Sri Lankans, Facebook is the internet and how friends and family communicate. Given how integral the social network is to their daily lives, it’s to be expected that Sri Lankans are finding ways around the shutdown, such as by using Virtual Private Networks (VPN).”
Unsurprisingly, VPN searches on Google shot up by 12,000% in the days after the attack. Sri Lanka’s government is clearly aware of the use of VPNs to bypass the internet restrictions, which explains why TunnelBear’s website was blocked. Currently, no other major VPN provider websites have been restricted.
According to Al Jazeera, the Secretary to the President Udaya R. Seneviratne said: “The government decided to block all social media platforms in order to prevent incorrect and wrong information being spread.”
However, free internet advocacy group Access Now disagreed with the measures, saying: “Credible media and journalists are also instrumental in fighting disinformation or misinformation…Having reliable access to social media and VPNs helps them to provide timely reports to the public”.
Access Now also stated that social media blocking hurts the victims: “During a terrorist attack and in the aftermath, it is vital that governments take necessary and legal measures to curb and foil further attacks, and to hold the perpetrators accountable; however, these measures should not further harm victims,
“Many in Sri Lanka rely on social media platforms and messaging apps to reach out to their families. Around the world, relatives and friends are checking to see if their loved ones are okay. For those in danger, and for those who want to help, not being able to connect or confirm that a loved one is safe can be devastating.”
This is not the first time that the Sri Lankan government has taken the decision to block access to social media sites. In March 2018, Sri Lankans found themselves unable to use certain online platforms following a series of violent riots.
New Zealand is another country that also resorted to a social media ban in response to the March 2019 mass shootings in Christchurch, blocking the platforms that played a large role in disseminating footage of the attacks.
Access Now is asking Sri Lanka, and all other nations, to lift internet blocks as part of the global #KeepItOn coalition which fights for the rights of users and “unites and organizes the global effort to end internet shutdowns.”