ECONOMYNEXT – Robust regulation is the best way to address any national security concerns associated with telecommunication services, and questions of ownership are largely immaterial, according to opposition MP Harsha de Silva.
The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) legislator told EconomyNext Saturday June 10 morning that fears of a national security risk posed by the proposed sale of Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT)’s shares have no basis in fact.
While risks certainly exist, said de Silva, appropriate regulation is the way to mitigate them.
The MP, who also chairs the parliamentary Committee on Public Finance (COPF), was commenting on a recommendation made by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security that SLT should not be further divested as doing so could “expose the country’s strategic communication infrastructure and sensitive information to private companies that are motivated by profit, which could pose a threat to national security”.
MP de Silva said that, since telecom operators are issued a license to use the frequency spectrum, which is public property, the regulator has the authority to withdraw the license in the event of any violation. It is the regulator’s responsibility, he said, to enforce adherence to standards of quality of service, cyber security, data protection and other considerations.
“Therefore, the ownership of the infrastructure is not really going to be a deciding factor,” he said, noting also that the phone numbers for the president, prime minister and the chief of defence staff saved on his own phone were all issued by a private operator.
“What happens if somebody calls from a Mobitel phone to [said private operator’s] number?”
Incidentally, Mobitel, SLT’s mobile network, was a build-operate-transfer project by Australia’s Telstra.
“It is how you make regulations and operating procedures that will ensure the safety of data. I do appreciate that there is a possibility for snooping, and cyber security threats do exist. But the way to mitigate those risks is through appropriate regulation,” said de Silva, citing examples from the United States and elsewhere.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in November 2022 banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE citing an “unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.
This, too, was done through regulation, noted the MP, reiterating that a robust regulatory framework was “absolutely” sufficient.
While this is the MP’s personal view, the SJB has yet to officially communicate the party’s position on the committee’s recommendation. However, de Silva said his party will likely share his opinion on the matter upon discussion.
“I can’t tell you exactly what the party view is going to be, but as a senior member I can tell you that my views would certainly influence the view of the party at the end of the day,” he said.
The SJB as recently as early May expressed opposition to the privatisation of strategically important state-owned enterprises (SOEs) while also advocating an end to state monopoly in sectors like power and energy through competition.
Meanwhile, the president’s office has all but snubbed the Sectoral Oversight Committee’s report on the sale of SLT’s shares, noting that it “lacks a logical or scientific data analysis pertaining to the subject matter.”
However, the cabinet of ministers will peruse the committee report and also consider recommendations from the information and communications technology (ICT) sector before arriving at a final decision on Monday June 10, a statement from the president’s office said Friday evening.
Former Director General of Telecommunications Prof Rohan Samarajiva has also dismissed the concerns raised by the oversight committee. Its recommendations were baseless and betrayed an ignorance of the history of Sri Lanka’s telecommunications sector as well as developments in the region, he told EconomyNext on Friday.
The subject of SOE reforms in the wake of Sri Lanka’s agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been politically sensitive with various groups including sections of the opposition accusing the government of “selling national assets”, which critics say has become a euphemism for increased state participation in the economy. It has also been a rallying cry of the leftist National People’s Power, led by the Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which has historically opposed privatisation of most SOEs. The administration of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, however, has defended their reform agenda as being vital for economic recovery as well as for Sri Lanka’s long term development. (Colombo/Jun10/2023)