Economic impact of Facebook ban in Sri Lanka – My two cents

It's been more than a week since Sri Lankan authorities imposing a ban on accessing Facebook through local internet service providers.

While I am totally in agreement with the government's decision to put a temporary restriction to the social network as a measure of controlling the racial violence erupted in some areas of the country, I was quite surprised to see the authorities holding on to the ban even after the situation came under control.

Let's not waste time by talking ideals. Ideally, the government should have prepared for this sort of a situation and developed the systems and technologies to deal with cybercrime and spreading of malicious information over the internet. But, that was never in the top of the priority list for this government. I sincerely hope the authorities will take this as a lesson and at least in the future will implement the precautions to identify the culprits and punish them in a situation like this, without completely pulling the plug off the internet or Facebook.

I am not qualified to discuss the legal and political implications of the Facebook ban. But from my experience being an internet marketing professional for nearly 15 years, I can confidently say that this was a clear signal given that Sri Lanka is either not ready, or purposely not willing to be part of the digital economy. We are moving backwards. The message passed to the digital entrepreneur community was “you are too insignificant for this country”. Every race (whether it’s the majority or minority) in this country are having politicians to represent them. All the big businesses and big businessmen in this country are blessed with political backing to safeguard their business interests. But, the voice of the small to medium entrepreneurs in this country was never taken serious by anyone.

Even within the SME sector, the up and coming small internet based entrepreneurs were never encouraged or recognized in this country. We are a country which keep PayPal away for the fear of "money laundering", while letting a foreign citizen and his son in law to rob the entire central bank in one insider deal.

As Dulith Herath mentioned in his video blog, there are dreams built upon these new internet platforms. Young millennials today are starting new businesses, directly connected to the global digital economy using these new platforms. While our elder generation is whining about the amount of money taken out of our country by Facebook and Google, they never think about the amount of money these young internet entrepreneurs bring into the county starting up businesses using the new media platforms. (BTW, I am in favor of the idea that Facebook and Google must open permanent establishments in Sri Lanka and pay taxes to the Sri Lankan government for the revenue they make out of doing business here. This has to be a separate discussion all together).

Sri Lanka missed many opportunities to transform into a modern economy. We missed the industrial revolution, we missed the service business revolution, we missed the knowledge revolution. Now this is our opportunity to transform ourselves and harness the benefits of the digital revolution. Countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are making massive progress in converting into digital economies. Hundreds of new digital business start-ups are booming in those countries; some are catering to a global clientele, bringing in revenue to the country. Revenue contributed to the GDP by Indian freelancers is estimated to be US$ 400 billion. Given the proper infrastructure, guidance and encouragement, I am sure Sri Lanka has some good quality talent to tap into this global market and grab a share of this revenue. (Let’s start by allowing PayPal inward remittances maybe).

These are the opportunities we are missing, when the consultants to the country’s decision makers are still living in the “tea, coconut, rubber” era of Sri Lankan economy.

When I discussed the topic of Facebook ban with some people in Sri Lanka, I repeatedly heard the sentiment that “It was a good move. Benefits we get as a country is bigger than the losses”. Funny thing to observe was, most people who shared this sentiment had some economic or professional interest vested in this ban (Telco, Traditional Media channels, or businesses continuously under attack on Social Media due to their poor customer service or bad product quality). The answer I gave to them was quite simple. In 1983, Sri Lanka faced a nationwide ethnic clash which leads the country to a 30 years long civil war. Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook was only born one year later to that incident. Are you still buying the ideology that Facebook is the sole source of spreading ethnic violence in Sri Lanka?

Facebook is only another medium on which people can express their stupidity. Facebook doesn't make people stupid or stupider. Banning access to Facebook will not make stupid people wise. We shouldn’t kill the goat, to save the clay pot.

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