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US expresses concerns over Sri Lanka’s controversial internet regulation law

The United States is expressing concerns over Sri Lanka’s controversial online regulation bill a day after it was passed in Parliament over protests by the media, opposition and rights activists

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The United States expressed concerns over Sri Lanka’s online regulation bill Thursday, a day after it passed overwhelmingly in Parliament over protests by the media, opposition and rights activists.

The Online Safety bill allows the government to set up a commission with a wide range of powers, including ordering people and internet service providers to remove online posts deemed “prohibited statements.” It can also legally pursue people who publish such posts.

Julie Chung, the U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka, said the United States has concerns about the potential impact of the legislation and urged “Sri Lanka to prioritize transparency and ensure any legislation does not stifle the voices of its people .”

“In addition to jeopardizing democratic values, vague and overly restrictive legislation can hinder investment and the development of a digital economy, undermining the economic growth that Sri Lanka needs,” Chung said in a statement posted on her X account.

The media, opposition lawmakers, internet and civil rights groups say the measure would undermine human rights and freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that the bill would create a repressive law with broad and vague “speech-related offenses punishable by lengthy prison terms.”

The Asia Internet Coalition, which has Apple, Amazon, Google and Yahoo as members, warned that the bill could undermine potential growth and foreign direct investment into Sri Lanka’s digital economy.

The government said the legislation addresses problems related to online fraud, abuse and false statements that threaten national security and stability. It denied the bill was drafted to harass media or political opponents.

Sri Lanka is struggling to emerge from its worst economic crisis, which hit the island nation two years ago. The country declared bankruptcy in 2022, with more than $83 billion in debt, more than half of it owed to foreign creditors.

The crisis caused severe shortages of food, fuel and other necessities, which fed strident public protests that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. After Rajapaksa fled, then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as president by parliament.

The IMF agreed last year to a $2.9 billion bailout package for the hard-hit country.

Shortages of necessities have since abated, but public dissatisfaction has intensified as the government imposed new taxes on professionals and businesses and raised energy bills.

Rights groups say that with the presidential election coming later this year, Wickremesinghe has sought to stifle dissent by cracking down on anti-government protests and arresting protestors and activists.



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