MP Harsha calls Sri Lanka ‘online safety bill’ draconian overreach

Asks how a government notorious for disseminating misinformation claim the moral high ground in discerning truth from falsehood

COLOMBO – In a fiery speech delivered in Parliament on Tuesday (19), MP Harsha de Silva, harshly criticized the recently gazetted online safety bill as an “archaic and draconian piece of legislation” that violates fundamental principles and represents a significant overreach by the government.

De Silva, Chair of Public Committee on Finance, underscored the potential damage the bill could inflict on both investment prospects and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, focusing his criticism on the bill’s creation of a commission appointed by the president, which would be tasked with determining the veracity of online content. He questioned the credibility of such a commission when the government itself has been accused of misleading the public, including misrepresenting its financial reserves to the tune of billions when they were merely in the millions.

“How can a government notorious for disseminating misinformation claim the moral high ground in discerning truth from falsehood?,” he asked.

Highlighting the potential ramifications of the bill, he pointed out that global tech giants such as Google, TikTok, Meta (formerly Facebook), and others are unlikely to comply with laws that impose restrictions on their operations and force them to police content based on arbitrary judgments. “This begs the question: can a financially troubled country with an authoritarian regime realistically dictate terms to some of the world’s largest tech companies?” he said.

De Silva said the online safety bill, “imposes unfair obligations on platforms to police content over and above what is necessary” and lacks foresight in considering future technological advancements, such as AI and its role in verifying authenticity. He raised concern that the restrictive laws could drive the major tech players away from Sri Lanka, thereby contradicting the government’s apparent desire to attract foreign investment.

“On one hand, you want them to come and invest, and on the other, you’re bringing legislation to curb their operations. This is a major contradiction,” he said, warning that the contradiction could have far-reaching implications for Sri Lanka’s economic growth and technological progress.

The MP said his speech highlighted the fundamental importance of the right to express views freely—a cornerstone of any democratic society, pointing out that the government committee’s power to determine the veracity of content and force platforms to remove it is an affront to this fundamental freedom. “It is essential to recognize that a government-appointed committee cannot effectively discern truth from falsehood in an era where information flows across borders at the speed of light,” he said.

He also observed that in an age where technology continues to advance rapidly, the future of communication and content moderation will heavily rely on artificial intelligence and sophisticated algorithms. Imposing archaic legislation that doesn’t account for these advancements he said, was not only backward-looking but also hinders Sri Lanka’s potential to adapt to the evolving digital landscape.

Deeming the government’s heavy-handed intervention as unnecessary and counterproductive, de Silva noted that tech companies already have their own community guidelines in place and are vigilant in ensuring their platforms are free from hate speech, harassment, and other forms of harmful content.

The MP’s scathing critique of the online safety bill highlights the significant concerns surrounding the proposed legislation, which only threatens to deter foreign investment but also jeopardizes freedom of expression and the country’s ability to embrace future technological advancements. He urged the government to carefully reconsider the consequences of an overreaching law and seek a balanced approach that respects both the rights of its citizens and the needs of its digital economy. “In an increasingly interconnected world, it is vital to navigate these challenges with wisdom and foresight, rather than resorting to draconian measures that stifle progress and liberty,” he stressed.


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