Tech giants slam "draconian" new Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill

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Just a few days after politicians in the UK signed off on the highly-debated Online Safety Bill, a homonymous proposed law is now sparking discussions over five thousand miles away. 

Despite coming as a means to halt online harm and fake news, tech giants have deemed the new Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill as a "draconian system to stifle dissent." Other experts have been warning of new executive powers and vague provisions too, which are thought to ultimately lead to increased online censorship, and free speech and privacy abuses.

The proposed legislation was first published in the Sri Lankan Government Gazette on September 18, 2023, and officially entered its legislative process into Parliament on October 2.

Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC)—which promotes the understanding and resolution of internet policy issues across the region—was one of the many commentators expressing concerns for the government's decision to evaluate the Bill without undertaking any stakeholder consultation. AIC's members, which include tech giants and social media platforms like Google, Apple, Meta, X (Twitter) and LinkedIn, will be the services to be greatly impacted by these new rules.

"The Bill provides for a draconian system to stifle dissent and Sri Lankans’ rights to expression," said AIC's Managing Director Jeff Paine in an official statement

Sri Lanka Online Safety Bill aims to create a legal framework to reduce online harm (especially for children) by halting the spread of harmful content and fake news online.

AIC and other commentators all agree that making online spaces safer for all Sri Lankans is an important legislative objective. However, they don't agree on how the government plans to achieve such an outcome.

On this point, Paine said: "While our member companies take seriously the online safety of those who use their services, legislation should not dampen innovation by restricting public debate and the exchange of ideas that can consequently impact the digital economy."

Among the concerns surrounding the bill, there are vague definitions of harmful content which could lead to censorship of legitimate material combined with a lack of safeguards for citizens' freedom of expression.

On this point, the Internet Media Action collective said: "Our concerns extend to how the draft law will build on Sri Lanka’s existing surveillance state framework, normalizing pervasive, and invasive captures of private or privileged communications."

Sri Lanka is infamous for restricted political rights and civil liberties (both online and offline). Despite some improvements after the 2015 election of President Maithripala Sirisena, Freedom House deemed the country as only partly free in its last report.

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In April 2022, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa enforced a social media ban in an attempt to disrupt anti-government demonstrations. This was then reversed after only 16 hours as the use of VPN services made it 'completely useless'.

Commentators are also worried about the expansion of executive powers. The Bill establishes, in fact, an Online Safety Commission responsible for blocking websites, instructing ISPs to restrict access to specific online locations and impose fines for non-compliance. If this wouldn't be already enough, the President will be the only one in charge of appointing its five members.

According to Media Analyst Nalaka Gunawardene, the Online Safety Commission will then have the same role of deciding what is true and false for all Sri Lankans as the Ministry of Truth had in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984—The Sunday Morning reported

He added: "Assigning the monopoly over truth to a State entity can seriously undermine freedom of expression, which is guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution."

While experts are now urging the Government to work together on crafting a more balanced and reasonable law, Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles is said to be open to make some changes if needed.

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to