Ghana’s anti-LGBTQ+ bill

No liberty, no safety: Sri Lanka must withdraw the Online Safety Bill

Update — 24 January 2024: Despite calls by civil society and industry associations, the Online Safety Bill was passed by the Parliament of Sri Lanka on 24 January 2024 without necessary amendments.

Sri Lankan authorities must not undermine the rights of people in Sri Lanka in its race to control online platforms. Through an open letter, Access Now and Hashtag Generation, along with more than 50 organisations, are demanding the Sri Lankan government withdraw the rights-violating Online Safety Bill

The Sri Lankan government is set to table the draconian Online Safety Bill in parliament on 23 January 2024, disregarding the red flags raised by civil society, rights advocates, and tech companies. In 2023 alone, approximately 50 petitions were filed against the bill by civil society and industry coalitions, highlighting the disastrous effect the legislation could have on the people in Sri Lanka, and the need for a complete overhaul.

Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill fails in its ambition to address online gender-based violence. The government needs to work on institutional strengthening through adequate gender-sensitisation and enhancing digital literacy, and not introduce laws geared towards criminalising speech. The bill would also have drastic consequences on a population already struggling with the worst economic crisis in the country’s history. To make things worse, there will be almost no avenues to file a challenge against the law as per Sri Lanka’s legal framework if this bill passes in parliament. Saritha Irugalbandara, Head of Advocacy at Hashtag Generation

While the proceedings before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court demonstrated the need for substantial amendments to validate the bill, the court’s 2023 verdict failed to criticise the fundamental flaws with this legislation. This includes provisions concerning an opaque regulatory body with no autonomy, adequate restraints, or independent oversight. 

The bill will be detrimental to the recovering Sri Lankan economy, as it would significantly shrink the market for digital opportunities and employment. A heavy-handed approach to content-regulation, without consulting affected stakeholders, will result in a law which neither benefits the people using online platforms nor the platforms trying to curb hate speech and disinformation.

Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill, in its current form, will be a blow to rights, freedoms, and economy. This bill will have a chilling effect on free speech. It enables arbitrary removal of content and over-censorship on social media platforms, and undermines encryption, which empowers people to communicate privately and safely. The Sri Lankan government must commit to revamping the bill and protecting free speech ahead of Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now

The government must withdraw the bill and engage in meaningful and inclusive multi-stakeholder consultations to ensure a people-centric approach to platform accountability and digital content regulation. The Online Safety Bill must not be allowed to make people in Sri Lanka unsafe, online or offline.