Online Safety Bill – Major blow to human rights

Amnesty International says the Online Safety Bill, freshly passed in Sri Lanka parliament on Wednesday (Jan.24), is a ‘major blow’ to human rights in the country.

Commenting in this regard, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Regional Researcher for South Asia at the international rights organisation said this legislation is the ‘newest weapon in the government’s arsenal of tools’ that could be used to undermine freedom of expression and suppress dissent.

She urged the Sri Lankan authorities to immediately withdraw the Online Safety Bill and ensure respect for the human rights of everyone in the country.

The Online Safety Bill, which seeks to regulate online content, received the parliamentary majority on Wednesday evening, amidst objections from opposition politicians and activists who raised alarm that the new law would muzzle free speech.

The Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill was also passed in Parliament by a majority of 46 votes. A total of 108 MPs had voted in favour, while 62 had voted against the Bill. The division was followed by a committee stage debate, during which a contentious situation ensued as opposition MPs objected to certain amendments brought by the ruling party, accusing them of being unconstitutional and in violation of the Supreme Court determination.

The Online Safety Bill proposes jail terms for content that a five-member commission considers illegal and makes social media platforms such as Google, Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter), liable for those posted on their platforms.

Dismissing the accusations, the government has defended the Bill, saying that it is aimed at battling cybercrimes including child abuse, data theft and online fraud.

Yet, many rights organizations, activists and civil society members, including the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), and Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) have voiced deep concerns about the problematic aspects of certain provisions of the Bill.

Commenting further on the passing of the new law to regulate online content, Ruwanpathirana said many parts of the Bill do not meet international human rights standards including overbroad provisions that would restrict the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online, and vaguely worded, subjective offences such as ‘prohibited statements’ as determined and declared by a powerful ‘Online Safety Commission’.

“As people grapple with and voice their concerns amid hardships during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and the impact of government’s austerity measures, this legislation will be ripe for misuse by authorities and will be used to further restrict civic space, and crackdown on critics and opposition.

“In a year of elections, with a long history of cracking down on protests, the Sri Lankan authorities must demonstrate the political will to uphold their international human rights obligations and commitments by guaranteeing and ensuring respect for human rights before, during and after elections,” Ruwanpathirana added.

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