Sri Lanka lifts social media ban as VPNs make it ‘completely useless’

Sri Lanka has reversed a social media ban after only 16 hours after the use of VPN services in the country was deemed to make it ‘completely useless’.

According to data from Top10VPN, the demand for virtual private networks in the country skyrocketed by 17,000% on Sunday, April 3 after major platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram were blocked.

After establishing a curfew and declaring a state of emergency, the ban came into force as the last attempt to stop the wave of protests fueling across the country amid a major economic crisis.

The blackout prompted a wave of criticism, with the President’s nephew Namal Rajapaksa condemning the move on Twitter after connecting by using a VPN.

By masking users’ real IP address and location, these security tools allow citizens to access censored platforms and circumvent online censorship. While authoritarian regimes are able to block VPNs in some cases – as Russia is doing right now – Sri Lankan authorities don’t seem willing to go that far.

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Short-lived social media ban provoked a backlash 

Sri Lanka president Gotabaya Rajapaksa enforced the social media ban in an attempt to disrupt anti-government demonstrations. The move came after imposing a nationwide curfew as well as a state of emergency following a crowd holding a rally out of his home in Colombo, the capital.

Internet service providers were forced to prevent access to all major social networks – these include Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok, Telegram and Facebook – ‘in the interests of the country’, as UK newspaper the Independent reported

Cybersecurity watchdog NetBlocks was the first to confirm the action in a tweet. The organization has also been tracking a decline in connectivity levels on internet provider Dialog since the end of March when the wave of protests took off. 

The move provoked a strong backlash. As The Guardian reported, the Chief of Sri Lanka’s internet regulator gave his resignation right after the ban order came into force. While Namal Rajapaksa, the President’s nephew and Minister of Youth and Sports, cricticised the decision on Twitter after accessing the platform using a VPN service. 

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In another tweet, Rajapaksa then informed the public of his decision to resign from his Parliamentary role. 

From there, the blackout did not last long. It was lifted just 16 hours following The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka’s decision that the Ministry of Defense had no authority to force ISPs to comply with the censorship order.  

However, the move appeared to have been pointless anyway, as protesters managed to circumvent the block through the use of VPN services and defy the curfew marching throughout the capital’s main square.

Discontent across Sri Lanka

A wave of protests is spreading across the country as Sri Lankans are facing a severe shortage of essentials – like fuel and food – record inflation levels, and crippling power cuts. The current situation is considered as the hardest economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948. 

Even though the pandemic exacerbates the country foreign debt, several economists point to the many years of government mismanagement as the main crisis’ responsible.

Under the chants of “Gota go home” and “Stop suppression,” opposition leaders and angry citizens are taking into the streets of the capital and other major cities to express their discontent. 

Authorities fired tear gas and issued many arrests in an attempt to crack down on the thousands who broke the curfew to protest over the economic crisis.

On Tuesday April 5, the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa revoked the state of emergency following dozens of MPs resigning from the ruling coalition. 

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