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Online Safety Bill passed in Parliament

 Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill, which seeks to regulate online content, was passed in Parliament with amendments on Wednesday (24), amidst objectios from opposition politicians and activists who allege the new law will muzzle free speech.

Accordingly, the Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena informed the House that the Online Safety Bill was passed in the Committee Stage with amendments.

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.

The government says the Bill is aimed at battling cybercrimes including child abuse, data theft and online fraud.

The Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill was also passed in Parliament this evening (Jan. 24) with 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 heated 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 Sectoral Oversight Committee on Media, Youth, Heritage and New Citizen had recently approved the Online Safety Bill, subject to the amendments determined by the Supreme Court.

The bill was approved when the Sectoral Oversight Committee met in Parliament on Monday (22) under the chairmanship of the MP Lalith Warankumara. Thus, the bill, which was tabled in Parliament by Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles was taken for the second reading debate on Tuesday (23) and Wednesday (24).

The Online Safety Bill, published in the government gazette on September 18, aims to ban online communication of certain statements in the country, prevent the use of online accounts – both authentic and inauthentic – for the use of prohibited purposes, to suppress the financing and other support of communication of false statements and other related matters.

However, the Bill has come under fire for some of its problematic aspects, with the AIC, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) voicing concerns.

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 information technology industry and called for extensive amendments to it.

Meanwhile, the collective of Information Technology (IT) and Business Process Management (BPM) industry stakeholders in Sri Lanka have also raised key concerns regarding the controversial Bill.

The Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM), Federation of Information Technology Industry Sri Lanka (FITIS), the Computer Society of Sri Lanka (CSSL) and the British Computer Society (BCS) have also raised concerns pertaining to the Online Safety Bill, issuing a joint statement today (24).

A total of 45 petitions had been put forward by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), National People’s Power (NPP), journalist Tharindu Uduwaragedara and many other parties, alleging that the relevant bill is in violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

Later, the Supreme Court, after concluding the deliberation of petitions, communicated its determination on the constitutionality of the Bill and its provisions to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Speaker of Parliament, emphasizing that pursuant to Article 84(2) of the Constitution, Clauses 3, 5, 7, 9, 11,12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 36, 37, 42, 45, 53, and 56 should be passed by a special majority in the parliament.

However, if these clauses are amended during the Committee Stage, the Online Safety Bill can be passed by a simple majority in the parliament, the Supreme Court’s determination had further stated.