Sri Lanka votes on new law to regulate online content

Opposition politicians and activists allege the social media regulation bill will muzzle free speech

Uditha JayasingheReuters
Published : 24 Jan 2024, 08:07 AM
Updated : 24 Jan 2024, 08:07 AM

Sri Lanka's lawmakers are set to vote on a social media regulation bill on Wednesday 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 make social media platforms such as Google, Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, liable for those posted on their platforms.

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

Voting was expected later on Wednesday, a day after the bill was introduced in the parliament for the lawmakers to debate on. The main party backing Wickremesinghe has a majority in the parliament.

"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.

"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 Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), which has Apple, Amazon, Google and Yahoo as members, warned Sri Lanka that the bill could impact investments 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.

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

"We do not understand why the government is in such a hurry to pass this bill," Eran Wickramaratne, a lawmaker of Sri Lanka's main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya, said during Tuesday's debate.

"We should take more time and have a better approach to passing laws that are this significant."