Sri Lanka’s online safety bill: Regressive overreach stifling investment and freedom of speech

●      Tech Investment Threatened: Risk of deterring tech investments in Sri Lanka.

Draconian Legislation: An archaic and draconian bill that overreaches.

●      Truth Determination: Commission to decide truth and falsehood – a questionable move.

●      Global Tech Giants: Major tech companies unlikely to accept such laws.

●      Lacking Foresight: Ignoring future tech advancements like AI.

●      Investment vs. Freedom: The contradiction between investment and freedom of speech.

●      Balanced Approach: The need to rethink and find a balanced solution.

In a fiery speech delivered in Parliament today, MP Harsha de Silva, Chair of the Committee on Public Finance, passionately criticized the Sri Lankan government's latest move—the introduction of the online safety bill. MP Harsha minced no words, calling it an "archaic and draconian piece of legislation" that violates fundamental principles and represents a significant overreach by the government. His critique underscores the potential damage this bill could inflict on both investment prospects and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

At the heart of MP Harsha's criticism lies in the bill's creation of a commission appointed by the President, which would be tasked with determining the veracity of online content. He rightfully questions 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?

MP Harsha de Silva's critique is grounded in the potential ramifications of this bill. He points 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?

The online safety bill, according to MP Harsha, "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 raises a valid concern that these restrictive laws could drive these major tech players away from Sri Lanka, thereby contradicting the government's apparent desire to attract foreign investment.

As MP Harsha articulates, "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." It is a contradiction that could have far-reaching implications for Sri Lanka's economic growth and technological progress.

MP Harsha's feedback on the speech highlights the fundamental importance of the right to express views freely—a cornerstone of any democratic society. 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.

Furthermore, MP Harsha's astute observation about the regressive nature of the bill rings true. 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 is not only backward-looking but also hinders Sri Lanka's potential to adapt to the evolving digital landscape.

It's worth noting 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. Therefore, the government's heavy-handed intervention seems unnecessary and counterproductive.

In conclusion, MP Harsha de Silva's scathing critique of the online safety bill highlights the significant concerns surrounding this proposed legislation. It not only threatens to deter foreign investment but also jeopardizes freedom of expression and the country's ability to embrace future technological advancements. Sri Lanka must carefully reconsider the consequences of such 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.

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