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US joins growing international warnings over Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill

The United States led international expressions of concern over Sri Lanka’s newly passed Online Safety Bill, as diplomats and international NGOs warned the legislature threatens freedom of speech.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung tweeted that the “United States remains concerned about the potential impact of Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Bill, which passed yesterday without incorporating important input from key stakeholders, including civil society and tech companies who say that this legislation threatens freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.”

She added that in addition to jeopardizing democratic value, such vague and overly restrictive legislation can hinder investment and the development of a digital economy, undermining the economic growth that Sri Lanka needs. “The U.S. urges Sri Lanka to prioritize transparency and ensure any legislation does not stifle the voices of its people," she added..

UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Andrew Patrick also took to his handle on X, formerly Twitter, to say that he has closely followed the proceedings in parliament on the Online Safety Bill and has heard civil society and industry concerns about its impact on Freedom of Expression and Sri Lanka’s economic growth. “Important that this is implemented in a way that preserves both," he said.

Meanwhile, the Australian High Commission to Sri Lanka said that although the regulation of the internet is necessary. “How this is done is important. Allowing space for freedom of expression, as well as innovation and development of a vibrant digital economy, is crucial to Sri Lanka’s economic growth and democracy.”

Amnesty International also issued a statement today calling the “The passing of the Online Safety Act is a major blow to human rights in Sri Lanka.”

Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Regional Researcher for South Asia at Amnesty International said the Act "is the newest weapon in the government’s arsenal of tools that could be used to undermine freedom of expression and suppress dissent. “Authorities must immediately withdraw it and ensure respect for the human rights of everyone in the country,” she added.

In her statement, she said that many parts of the Act do not meet international human rights standards including overbroad provisions that would restrict the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online, and vaguely worded, subjective offences such as ‘prohibited statements’ as determined and declared by a powerful ‘Online Safety Commission’. 

“As people grapple with and voice their concerns amid hardships during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and the impact of government’s austerity measures, this legislation will be ripe for misuse by authorities and will be used to further restrict civic space, and crackdown on critics and opposition. In a year of elections, with a long history of cracking down on protests, the Sri Lankan authorities must demonstrate the political will to uphold their international human rights obligations and commitments by guaranteeing and ensuring respect for human rights before, during, and after elections,” she said.

Read the full statement here.

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