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US voices concern to Sri Lanka president regarding new social media law

A blindfolded activist with a rope tied around his wrists and covered with logos of different social media platforms takes part in a protest against the proposed ‘Online Safety Bill’, near the Parliament in Colombo on January 24, 2024. Sri Lanka’s parliament began debating on January 23 a social media regulation bill dubbed “draconian” by the opposition, which could make companies criminally liable for posts authorities deem harmful. (Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP) (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Kimberly Rodrigues

The US on Tuesday (13), urged Sri Lanka president Ranil Wickremesinghe to address the issues raised by a new, strict internet censorship law, which has caused concern and alarmed tech companies.

Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), raised the issue during a virtual meeting with Wickremesinghe in which she also voiced US readiness to help address economic challenges on the island, a closer partner of China in recent years.

Power “highlighted strong US support for freedom of expression and association,” USAID said in a statement.

She “encouraged President Wickremesinghe to address concerns about the potential impact of the Online Safety Act on freedom of expression, as well as investment in Sri Lanka’s vibrant digital economy.”

The law passed last month would make social media companies liable for any content posted on their platforms deemed offensive by Sri Lankan authorities, with prison terms of up to 10 years for tech executives who fail to disclose details of users found to be in violation.

Tech companies had warned that the law is unworkable and that they would not implement it, while opposition lawmakers decried what they saw as an attempt to censor political speech ahead of presidential elections later this year.

Additionally, the bill to regulate online content proposes jail terms for content that a five-member commission considers illegal and making social media platforms such as Alphabet’s Google GOOGL.O, Meta’s Facebook META.O and X, liable for such content on their platforms.

Wickremesinghe’s government says the bill is aimed at battling cyber-crime including child abuse, data theft and online fraud.

“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 last month while introducing the bill in the house.

“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 bill was passed with a majority of 46 votes in the 225-member house, the speaker announced. 108 votes were in favour while 62 members voted against it.

The Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), which has Apple AAPL.O, Amazon AMZN.O, Google and Yahoo as members, warned Sri Lanka that the bill could impact investment 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.

Last year, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) said the law “could potentially criminalise nearly all forms of legitimate expression” while New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it would “seriously threaten” the right to freedom of expression in the country.

“Sri Lanka has engaged with AIC and consulted with stakeholders since November. We are open to considering fresh changes and bringing them as amendments to the legislation at a later date,” Alles said before the debate on the bill concluded on January 24 and voting was called.

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

Harsha de Silva, a lawmaker of Sri Lanka’s main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya, told parliament that it was not right to hold social media platforms accountable.

“This legislation is a threat to our democracy,” he said.

“This will have a severe negative impact on expanding e-commerce in Sri Lanka, to provide jobs to our youth and help our economy, which is in desperate need of growth.”

Information Minister Bandula Gunawardana earlier Tuesday (13) said that the government would revisit the law after considering proposals from experts.

Social media was a key tool used by protesters during Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis in 2022, which precipitated nationwide demonstrations that eventually compelled then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.

The International Monetary Fund in December revived a $2.9 billion bailout for Sri Lanka after Colombo reached a debt restructuring deal with China, its biggest official lender.

(With inputs from agencies)

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