Sri Lanka passes online safety act amidst opposition: critics allege threats to free speech

Legislator Tiran Alles, the minister of public security, said that the act is needed to combat crimes such as online fraud and remarks that endanger the stability of the country. He listed more than 8,000 cybercrime-related complaints that were made in the previous year.

Sri Lanka has formally passed the contentious Online Safety Act, giving a government committee broad authority to assess and eliminate “prohibited” content from the internet. The Act’s detractors contend that it threatens free speech and stifles opposition in advance of the impending presidential elections. The legislation is intended to prevent cybercrime.

The president will form a five-person commission to evaluate these remarks, order their removal, and penalise those found to be affiliated with them. Laws also impose legal responsibility on social media companies for the content that is put on them.

Legislator Tiran Alles, the minister of public security, said that the act is needed to combat crimes such as online fraud and remarks that endanger the stability of the country. He listed more than 8,000 cybercrime-related complaints that were made in the previous year.

The nation is still dealing with the fallout from its worst economic crisis, which is characterised by skyrocketing food prices and inflation since declaring bankruptcy in April 2022. The March 12 Movement, a pro-democracy group in Sri Lanka, criticises the government’s “adamant pursuit” of the law as a means to “silence dissent and suppress civic activism.”

The organisation stresses that the public’s quiet in the face of rising living expenses should not be interpreted as obedience, but rather as a sign of impending resistance to the government’s oppressive rule.

Joining the chorus of opposition, Amnesty International claims that the Online Safety Act’s ambiguous language and wide-ranging measures will limit people’s online freedom of speech and privacy rights. The act is the government’s newest tool to stifle dissent and erode freedom of expression, according to Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, regional researcher for South Asia at Amnesty International.

The draft law has drawn criticism from the UN human rights office, which started in October of last year that it gives authorities “unfettered discretion to label and restrict expressions they disagree with as ‘false statements.'”

The introduction of the Online Safety Act has complicated the political landscape of Sri Lanka, which is expected to happen later this year or early next year. It has also raised concerns about how to strike a balance between cybersecurity measures and the protection of fundamental rights.