Sri Lanka’s parliament began debating on Tuesday a social media regulation bill dubbed “draconian” by the opposition, which could make companies criminally liable for posts authorities deem harmful.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority and the Online Safety Bill — which would make illegal anonymous or parody social media accounts — could be passed as early as this week.
Sri Lanka’s main opposition as well as a coalition of international internet and technology companies have opposed the bill as a blow to free speech.
Social media was a key tool used by protesters during the 2022 economic crisis, which forced then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.
The bill makes platforms such as Facebook, Google and X, formerly known as Twitter, liable for any content that Colombo considers offensive or undermines its national security. Offenders could be jailed for up to 10 years.
The Asia Internet Coalition which includes Apple, Google, Yahoo, Meta and X, said earlier this month they had suggested extensive amendments to the bill.
“Without extensive revisions, the proposed legislation will be unworkable,” the coalition said in a letter.
“The economic implications of the proposed Online Safety Bill cannot be overstated”, it added.
Opposition legislator M. A. Sumanthiran told parliament it was “an oppressive and a draconian piece of legislation”.
But Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said the bill would protect against financial fraud.
“Several in this parliament have been victims of online attacks… children and women have been targeted and we need to protect them,” Alles told parliament.
Livestock Development minister D. B. Herath said it would tackle hate speech, saying that “the burning of houses of government MPs in 2022 was organised on social media”.
Under the bill, anonymous or parody social media accounts accessible in Sri Lanka would be banned, while anyone posting from abroad would also be liable for prosecution.
Companies would have to identify those running sites which publish material considered offensive by a panel appointed by parliament. Exactly how it would be implemented is unclear.