Sri Lanka passes new law to regulate online content

By Uditha Jayasinghe

COLOMBO (Reuters) -Sri Lanka’s lawmakers on Wednesday passed a bill to regulate online content, the speaker of the parliament announced, a law which opposition politicians and activists allege will muzzle free speech.

The Online Safety Bill proposes jail terms for content that a five-member commission considers illegal and making social media platforms such as Alphabet’s Google, Meta’s Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, liable for such content on their platforms.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government says the bill is aimed at battling cyber crime including child abuse, data theft and online fraud.

“Sri Lanka had 8,000 cyber crimes complaints last year. We all agree that we need laws to address these issues. This is why we are bringing this law,” Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said on Tuesday while introducing the bill in the house.

“It is not to suppress the media or the opposition…Any complaint will be taken up by the commission, who will be appointed by the president and they will decide how to act.”

The bill was passed with a majority of 46 votes in the 225-member house, the speaker announced. 108 votes were in favour while 62 members voted against it.

The Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), which has Apple, Amazon, Google and Yahoo as members, warned Sri Lanka that the bill could impact investment in the country’s IT industry and called for extensive amendments to it.

“We unequivocally stand by our position that the Online Safety Bill, in its current form, is unworkable and would undermine potential growth and foreign direct investment into Sri Lanka’s digital economy,” the AIC said in a statement.

Last year, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) said the law “could potentially criminalise nearly all forms of legitimate expression” while New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it would “seriously threaten” the right to freedom of expression in the country.

“Sri Lanka has engaged with AIC and consulted with stakeholders since November. We are open to considering fresh changes and bringing them as amendments to the legislation at a later date,” Alles said before the debate on the bill concluded on Wednesday and voting was called.

A small group of activists and opposition members protested against the legislation outside parliament.

Harsha de Silva, a lawmaker of Sri Lanka’s main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya, told parliament that it was not right to hold social media platforms accountable.

“This legislation is a threat to our democracy,” he said. “This will have a severe negative impact on expanding e-commerce in Sri Lanka, to provide jobs to our youth and help our economy, which is in desperate need of growth.”

(Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe; Writing by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Kirsten Donovan)