Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill raises freedom of speech concerns ahead of elections

Under the provisions of the bill, content creators deemed to be sharing “illegal” material, as determined by a newly established five-member commission, could face jail sentences. Additionally, major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and X are held accountable for the content posted on their platforms.

The Online Safety Bill, passed by a 108-62 vote on Wednesday, has raised concerns about the potential suppression of dissent and freedom of speech, especially in the lead-up to parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

Under the provisions of the bill, content creators deemed to be sharing “illegal” material, as determined by a newly established five-member commission, could face jail sentences. Additionally, major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and X are held accountable for the content posted on their platforms.

The government, led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, introduced the bill just one day before the vote, emphasizing its focus on combating cybercrimes, including child abuse, data theft, and online fraud. Public Security Minister Tiran Alles stated that the legislation’s primary goal is not to curtail freedom of speech but rather to address the rising threat of cybercrimes, citing 8,000 cybercrimes reported in the country last year.

However, Human Rights Watch has expressed serious reservations about the bill, pointing out that the Online Safety Commission members could wield arbitrary powers, deciding what online speech is considered “false” or “harmful” and taking actions such as content removal, internet access restriction, and prosecution of individuals and organizations.

The bill introduces substantial penalties, including hefty fines and prison sentences of up to five years for offences, according to the international rights group. Following the parliamentary vote, a small group of activists and opposition members protested outside the parliament, with lawmaker Harsha de Silva describing the legislation as “a threat to our democracy.”

Criticism isn’t limited to local voices; the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), comprising major tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Yahoo, labelled the bill a “draconian system to stifle dissent.” The AIC warned that such legislation could undermine the potential growth of Sri Lanka’s digital economy.

The rushed passage of the bill has sparked concerns about the government’s commitment to democratic values and the potential impact on the country’s economic landscape. As Sri Lanka heads toward elections, the controversial Online Safety Bill adds to the ongoing debate surrounding freedom of expression and the balance between cybersecurity and individual liberties.