Welcome to the digital age, where the protection of online spaces has taken centre stage. Sri Lanka, mirroring global concerns, has introduced the Online Safety Bill, seemingly crafted to combat cyberbullying and misinformation. Yet, at its core, the creation of the Online Safety Commission unravels a complex set of worries, encouraging us to question its true intentions.
By Madhuri Ranasinghe
Introduced with the intention to protect the citizens, the online safety rules and regulations have been through a tough battle dividing the civil society activists and political groups in Sri Lanka. Enter the proposed five-member commission, handpicked by the president—a move that sparks concerns about the political influence and credibility of this bill. In a nation where the president wields significant power, including immunity from legal proceedings, the prospect of unbiased appointments becomes questionable. This intermingling of politics and commission appointments raises valid concerns about the fairness of the body entrusted with overseeing online safety.
Unprecedented Authority: Navigating Freedom of Expression
Sri Lanka’s strong legal tradition in upholding freedom of speech faces a delicate test with this bill. While aiming to ensure online safety, the proposed commission is armed with extensive powers—investigating complaints, issuing notices, and advising the government. The broad definition of offences, paired with subjective interpretations, hints at the potential suppression of dissent and the stifling of diverse opinions.
Sri Lanka’s legal foundation, as established by Supreme Court judgments under Article 14 of the constitution, has historically embraced a broad interpretation of freedom of speech and expression. Landmark cases, such as Fernando v SLBC (1996) and Amaratunga v. Sirimal and others (1993), underscore the right to criticize the government and participate in discussions, even if the views expressed are unpopular, obnoxious, or distasteful. However, the introduction of the Online Safety Bill casts a new light on these liberties.
The proposed commission, entrusted with the dual mandate of ensuring online safety while preserving human rights, is granted significant powers under Section 11 of the bill. These powers include investigating complaints, issuing notices to individuals, conducting court-directed investigations, advising the government on online safety, and issuing codes of practice for service providers while registering social media platforms.
One of the key contentious points revolves around the commission’s power to receive complaints and initiate investigations, particularly concerning prohibited statements. The bill’s definition of a false statement introduces subjectivity, potentially allowing dissenting opinions to be categorized as false statements. This raises concerns about the weaponization of such authority to silence voices critical of the government or express dissenting views.
The bill addresses a range of different offences, some of which are already covered by existing laws. Sections such as 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25 prescribe a range of actions, including the communication of false statements, causing contempt of court, inducing malicious writing, insulting religious feelings, engaging in deception, and more. The redundancy in addressing offences, coupled with selective enforcement of existing laws, raises questions about the necessity and effectiveness of the proposed bill.
Absence of an Appeal Mechanism: A Gap in Due Process
Complicating matters further, the bill lacks an appeal mechanism. Individuals receiving notices from the commission find themselves without recourse, infringing upon the fundamental right to a fair trial. The unchecked authority, coupled with the absence of due process, jeopardizes the very principles the bill claims to protect.
The bill’s potential for political appointments, coupled with unchecked authority and the lack of an appeal mechanism, paints a disconcerting picture. Rather than fostering genuine online safety, the bill seems poised to become a tool for suppression—an alarming continuation of using the law to target specific individuals and stifle dissent.
A Comparative Look at Online Safety Bills in Sri Lanka and the UK (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/britain-makes-internet-safer-as-online-safety-bill-finished-and-ready-to-become-law)
While Sri Lanka grapples with the complexities of the Online Safety Bill, the United Kingdom celebrates a significant milestone as its own Online Safety Bill passes its final parliamentary debate. Sri Lanka’s proposed Online Safety Bill has raised eyebrows with its allocation of significant powers to a central commission. In a nation deeply rooted in the principles of freedom of speech and expression, the bill’s Section 11 assigns powers ranging from investigating complaints to advising the government on online safety. The subjective nature of the bill’s definition of a false statement introduces a risk of suppressing dissent and silencing diverse voices.
Meanwhile, the UK’s Online Safety Bill (https://groundviews.org/2023/10/04/uk-and-sri-lanka-a-comparison-of-two-online-safety-bills/ )has secured parliamentary approval, marking a historic moment in child protection legislation. The bill takes a robust stance, holding social media platforms accountable for the content they host, especially concerning harm to children. Fines, potentially reaching billions of pounds, and even imprisonment for platform executives await those who fail to promptly remove illegal content or safeguard children online.
The UK bill prioritizes child protection, compelling social media platforms to swiftly remove illegal content, prevent access to harmful material, enforce age limits, and provide transparent risk assessments. This zero-tolerance approach underscores a commitment to creating the safest online environment for children. In contrast, the Sri Lankan bill’s potential for political influence and selective enforcement raises concerns about its true dedication to online safety.
The UK bill goes beyond child protection, empowering adults to take control of their online experiences. Through three layers of protection, including the removal of illegal content, enforcing platform promises through terms and conditions, and offering users the ability to filter out harmful content, the bill seeks to create a safer digital space. Failure to comply could result in substantial fines or a percentage of global annual revenue for social media platforms.
The UK’s comprehensive bill extends beyond online safety, tackling online fraud and violence against women and girls. Provisions to convict those sharing intimate images without consent and criminalize the non-consensual sharing of intimate deepfakes demonstrate a multifaceted approach to protecting citizens from digital harm. The UK government’s proactive stance is evident in the additional amendments, forcing social media firms to prevent activities facilitating animal cruelty and torture.
As the UK celebrates the imminent implementation of its Online Safety Bill, Sri Lanka navigates the complexities of its own legislative journey. The juxtaposition of these narratives emphasizes the diverse paths nations tread in the pursuit of online safety. While the UK bill reflects a resolute commitment to child protection and a safer online environment, the concerns raised by the Sri Lankan bill highlight the delicate balance between governance and individual freedoms in the digital age. If the Sri Lankan government genuinely seeks to enhance online safety, alternative measures should take centre stage. Encouraging internet service providers to establish codes of conduct, supporting independent fact-checking entities, and implementing mechanisms overseen by established courts for content removal present more effective and rights-respecting solutions. By exploring these alternative paths, Sri Lanka can safeguard online spaces without compromising fundamental principles of freedom of expression and due process.