On the 18 th of September 2023, the Government of Sri Lanka published a Bill titled “Online
Safety” and this was subsequently tabled in Parliament on the 3 rd of October. The Bill aims
to establish an Online Safety Commission with a range of powers, including the ability to
direct persons and internet service providers to remove vaguely defined “prohibited
statements” from online platforms. With the Wickremesinghe-led Government ostensibly
resolved to make the Bill law, one must query the implications of the Sri Lankan online
space being policed with implications for free speech and dissent. Notably, the Online
Safety Bill seeks to imprison and/or fine those who could threaten to disrupt national
security or public order or even cause “ill-will” or “hostility” between different classes of
persons. Further, clauses exist to prohibit online communications that may “outrage
religious feelings” or statements that would cause “alarm” or “fear” to the public which may
have wider implications for fundamental rights and democracy. On the flip side,
proponents of the Bill have lauded it as one which seeks to combat child pornography.
However, these offences, already provided in existing laws, are a minor part of the Bill and
fall short of the abuse that women and children face online.
Civil society and others have critiqued the Bill, with 45 petitions filed in the Supreme Court
of Sri Lanka arguing that the Bill violated the fundamental rights of citizens contained
within the Constitution of Sri Lanka, and could only be passed by a referendum. By the 7 th of
November 2023, the Court determined that the Online Safety Bill could only be passed by
the Parliament of Sri Lanka if 31 amendments were made to the Bill, significantly changing
the scope of what was publicly presented.
Moreover, although at one time the Minister of Public Security promised to withdraw the
Bill and re-produce an amended version, the Bill is scheduled to be heard in Parliament on
the 23 rd of January 2024. This when many concerns continue to persist with no genuine
interest by the Government to engage with the public and others on ensuring the law
protects the rights of citizens and has the required safeguards to prevent abuse.
The timing of the Online Safety Bill is noteworthy. Over the last few months of 2023, the
Government of Sri Lanka, in addition to the Online Safety Bill, has proposed the
implementation of a controversial Anti-Terrorism Bill to replace the Prevention of
Terrorism Act and a Broadcasting Regulatory Authority Bill to regulate the content of
broadcasters. Thus, the Online Safety Bill simply fits into a wider web of laws to restrict
freedom of thought and expression with a chilling impact on our democracy.
The above concerns are in a context when there is a lack of awareness prevalent in the
general public. A poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in November 2023
revealed that only 28.4% of the Sri Lankan public were aware of the proposed Online
Safety Bill and 71.1.% of this number disapproved of the Bill citing that those in power will
misuse the Bill for their own benefit. This Bill follows a pattern of a lack of stakeholder
consultation before publication and must be viewed in the context of Sri Lanka’s usage of
legislation to target critics, minorities and others, such as the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights. With 71.6% of the Sri Lankan population unaware of the Bill,
there is a clear sign of a majority of the public being oblivious to initiatives that will erode
their fundamental right to free speech.
If the Bill is enacted by Parliament, the public is left with a patchwork statute,
masquerading under the guise of providing safe spaces online but in actual fact
empowering an ‘Online Safety Commission’ to censor critical public opinion and stifle the
dissent of opposing political voices. The fraught hope that such a future does not come to
pass now depends upon Members of Parliament.
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