Online Safety Bill: HRCSL raised concerns with Tiran

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has sent a letter to Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles regarding the proposed Online Safety Bill. In the letter, the HRCSL emphasized the need to enhance the institutional capacity of law enforcement authorities to interpret and enforce existing criminal laws before introducing new legislation related to online activities.

The HRCSL recommended that the Bill should avoid criminalizing statements solely based on their potential to cause ‘distress’ to individuals, as the concept of ‘distress’ can be highly subjective and vary in degree. The Commission expressed concerns that such criminalization might infringe on freedom of expression.

In its preliminary observations and recommendations, the HRCSL aimed to ensure the Bill’s compatibility with the fundamental rights chapter of the Sri Lankan Constitution. Among its recommendations:

  1. Caution against criminalizing statements causing ‘distress,’ suggesting that remedies for such injury should be pursued through civil proceedings.
  2. Ensuring the political independence of the proposed Online Safety Commission and refraining from granting quasi-judicial powers.
  3. Revising procedures in the Bill to provide individuals an opportunity to be heard, in line with the rules of natural justice.
  4. Reviewing offences related to ‘prohibited statements’ for precision and proportionality of penalties.
  5. Establishing clear criteria for classifying ‘inauthentic online accounts’ to protect online users’ anonymity and freedom for parody or satire.
  6. Restricting police investigation assistance experts from having police powers, as they may not be publicly accountable private actors.
  7. Welcoming the introduction of a new offence on child abuse through online means and encouraging collaboration with relevant ministries for separate enactment.

The HRCSL also invited relevant stakeholders and the public to provide feedback on the Online Safety Bill, with comments and suggestions accepted in Sinhala, Tamil, or English until October 17, 2023. The Commission seeks to ensure that the Bill respects fundamental rights and addresses concerns about online safety while safeguarding freedom of expression and privacy.

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