With the rise of online platforms and the spread of misinformation, governments around the world are taking steps to regulate online content. Sri Lanka, a country known for its restrictions on political rights and civil liberties, recently introduced the Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill. This bill aims to reduce online harm, particularly for children, but has faced criticism from tech giants and experts who claim it could lead to increased online censorship and privacy abuses. In this article, we will delve into the details of the bill, explore the concerns raised by industry experts, and discuss the potential impact on freedom of expression and the digital economy.

The Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill: An Overview

The Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill was first published in the Sri Lankan Government Gazette on September 18, 2023, and entered its legislative process in Parliament on October 2. The bill proposes the creation of a legal framework to combat online harm, including the spread of harmful content and fake news. While the objective of making online spaces safer for all Sri Lankans is commendable, concerns have been raised regarding the methods outlined in the bill.

Vague Definitions and Potential Censorship

One of the primary concerns raised by critics is the vague definitions of harmful content within the bill. This ambiguity could potentially lead to the censorship of legitimate material and limit freedom of expression. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an organization representing tech giants and social media platforms, including Google, Apple, Meta, Twitter, and LinkedIn, has expressed its concerns about the bill. AIC’s Managing Director, Jeff Paine, describes the bill as a “draconian system to stifle dissent and Sri Lankans’ rights to expression.”

Lack of Safeguards for Freedom of Expression

In addition to the vague definitions, experts have highlighted the lack of safeguards for citizens’ freedom of expression. The Internet Media Action collective, a group focused on digital rights, privacy, and online censorship, states that the draft law could build upon Sri Lanka’s existing surveillance state framework, allowing for widespread monitoring and capturing of private communications. This potential intrusion into individuals’ privacy raises significant concerns about the bill’s impact on civil liberties.

Expansion of Executive Powers

Another aspect of the bill that has garnered criticism is the expansion of executive powers. The bill proposes the establishment of an Online Safety Commission, responsible for blocking websites, instructing internet service providers to restrict access to specific online locations, and imposing fines for non-compliance. Critics argue that concentrating such powers in the hands of a few individuals, particularly the President’s sole authority to appoint the commission’s members, could have adverse effects on freedom of expression and democratic discourse.

Historical Context: Sri Lanka’s Record on Political Rights and Civil Liberties

To fully understand the controversy surrounding the Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill, it is essential to examine Sri Lanka’s historical record on political rights and civil liberties. Despite some improvements after the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the country is still regarded as only partly free in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, has categorized Sri Lanka as “partly free” in its latest report.

Previous Attempts at Online Regulation

The Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill is not the first attempt by the Sri Lankan government to regulate online content. In April 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa enforced a social media ban in an attempt to disrupt anti-government demonstrations. However, the ban was short-lived, as the use of VPN services rendered it ineffective. This incident highlights the challenges faced by governments in regulating online spaces and the potential limitations of such measures.

Industry Experts’ Critiques and Concerns

Industry experts and organizations have voiced their concerns about the Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill, emphasizing the potential impact on free speech, privacy, and the digital economy. Let’s explore some of the key critiques raised by these experts.

Lack of Consultation with Stakeholders

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) has expressed disappointment over the government’s decision to evaluate the bill without undertaking any stakeholder consultation. AIC’s member companies, including major tech giants, argue that effective legislation should involve collaboration with all relevant stakeholders to ensure a balanced approach that protects online safety without stifling innovation and public debate.

Impact on Digital Economy

The AIC and other industry experts argue that the bill’s provisions could hinder the growth of the digital economy in Sri Lanka. Restrictive measures, such as website blocking and content removal, may discourage foreign investment and limit the potential for innovation. The ability to freely exchange ideas and engage in public discourse is crucial for fostering a thriving digital ecosystem.

Concerns over Privacy and Surveillance

The draft law’s potential to expand surveillance capabilities and capture private communications has raised concerns among privacy advocates. The Internet Media Action collective warns that the bill could normalize invasive surveillance practices, jeopardizing individuals’ right to privacy. Balancing online safety with privacy rights remains a delicate task for lawmakers.

Potential for Abuse and Censorship

Critics argue that the bill’s broad definitions of harmful content and the concentration of decision-making power within the Online Safety Commission could lead to abuse and censorship. The lack of clear criteria for determining what constitutes harmful content opens the door for subjective interpretation and potential misuse of the law. Safeguards must be in place to prevent the suppression of dissenting voices and limit the potential for arbitrary censorship.

Impact on Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected under the Sri Lankan Constitution. The concentration of power within the Online Safety Commission and the lack of safeguards for citizens’ freedom of expression raise concerns about potential infringements on this right. Critics argue that assigning the monopoly over truth to a state entity undermines freedom of expression and democratic principles.

Moving Forward: Calls for a Balanced Approach

While concerns have been raised about the Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill, experts and industry organizations are urging the Sri Lankan government to work together to craft a more balanced and reasonable law. Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles has indicated openness to making changes if necessary. It is crucial to strike a balance between ensuring online safety and protecting civil liberties, fostering innovation, and promoting a vibrant digital economy.

In conclusion, the Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill has generated significant controversy, with tech giants and experts criticizing its potential impact on free speech, privacy, and the digital economy. The bill’s vague definitions, lack of safeguards, and expansion of executive powers have raised concerns about online censorship and potential abuses. As Sri Lanka moves forward with the legislative process, it is essential to consider the feedback from industry experts and engage in constructive dialogue to find a balanced approach that protects online safety while upholding fundamental rights and promoting innovation.