New Delhi: Sri Lanka has officially implemented the Online Safety Act, a legislation aimed at regulating online content, which critics argue is a deliberate attempt to curb freedom of speech. The law grants a government commission extensive powers to evaluate and remove content deemed "prohibited." While authorities assert that the act is designed to combat cybercrime, opponents contend that it suppresses dissent, especially in the lead-up to elections.
Passed with a vote of 108-62 on January 24, the legislation triggered protests outside the parliament. It has now come into effect after receiving an endorsement from the Speaker. The sweeping law prohibits the dissemination of "false statements about incidents in Sri Lanka," statements intending to hurt religious sentiments, and the misuse of bots, among other things.
A five-member commission appointed by the president will be authorized to assess such statements, direct their removal, and impose penalties on the individuals responsible. Additionally, the law holds social media platforms accountable for content on their platforms.
Tiran Alles, the Publicity Security Minister who introduced the legislation, argues that it is essential for addressing offences related to online fraud and statements that threaten national stability. Last year, more than 8,000 complaints related to cybercrimes were filed, according to Alles.
The legislation faced severe criticism earlier, with concerns raised about its impact on freedom of expression. The opposition, referring to the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), argued that the bill could hinder efforts to attract foreign investment. The AIC cautioned that the legislation, in its current form, could undermine the potential growth of Sri Lanka's digital economy.
A pro-democracy group in Sri Lanka labelled the government's determination to push through the legislation as a "clear indication of its intention to silence dissent and suppress civic activism," particularly in the aftermath of the country's worst economic crisis. Rising food prices and inflation, coupled with the aftermath of the economic crisis, have fuelled discontent among citizens.
The March 12 Movement, a pro-democracy group, emphasized that the government must recognize the simmering dissatisfaction among citizens and cautioned against mistaking silence for obedience. The group predicted a potential backlash against the government's authoritative rule.
The United Nations human rights office had previously expressed concerns about the draft law, noting that it grants authorities "unfettered discretion to label and restrict expressions they disagree with as 'false statements'."
Sri Lanka's next presidential elections are anticipated later this year or early next year, adding a political dimension to the ongoing debate surrounding the controversial Online Safety Act.