This blog post is based on key highlights from the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School, held last April 2022 under the Greater Internet Freedom program. Read the rest of the posts here.
Sri Lanka has a significant legal gap when it comes to cybersecurity and cybercrime. The country’s recently-approved Cybersecurity Bill and Cybersecurity Policy aim to remedy the lack of a legal framework to improve cybersecurity.
During the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School and Gender and Digital Rights Fellowship hosted by EngageMedia under the Greater Internet Freedom project, the following issues and related concerns emerged as the key highlights.
Online Freedom of Expression: Crackdown on online free speech and offline threats. In Sri Lanka, arrests of online activists have been carried out in sync with a crackdown on offline protests. In February 2023, the Criminal Investigations Development arrested Dharshana Handungoda, a journalist and political commentator YouTuber. This came after the arrest of another Youtuber and social activist for blasphemy charges under Section 290 of the Penal Code. With the threat of arrest, human rights advocates are forced to carefully balance how they voice their concerns in order to stay safe, online and offline.
Online Privacy: Lack of National Digital Security System and impact on people’s data privacy. As of 2023, Sri Lanka still does not have a cybersecurity authority. The country ranked 81st out of 175 countries in the National Cyber Security Index and scored zero for the protection of digital and essential services. The government’s plan to remedy this issue via a Cybersecurity Bill and an Information and Cybersecurity Policy have only been recently approved. The lack of attention paid to cybersecurity has resulted in several data breaches and hacking incidents since 2020. Last year, there were seven incidents reported, including the hijacking of several government sites.
Digital Inclusion and Connectivity: Gap in access affected by gender and income. In 2021, less than half of the state’s population uses the internet due to limited access to devices and internet providers. The digital literacy gap between men (60.3%) and women (54.5%) shows that women are underrepresented in the digital world. The gap is growing prominent as Sri Lanka moves to advance its digital reach; while COVID-19 and lockdowns ushered in an era of the digital economy, the government’s plan to control the newly-booming e-commerce sector is still predicted to face barriers due to a lack of knowledge and trust in online transaction systems, especially among communities in rural areas.
Online Gender-Based Violence: Second biggest form of cybercrime in the nation. Gender-based violence is the most-commonly perpetrated form of online violence in Sri Lanka, yet it is also the least reported. Two out of every 10 young women in Sri Lanka have been sexually harassed online, and one in two say they were sent unsolicited explicit images. Most perpetrators hide under the anonymity that the internet provides to avoid identification, although it is not always the case.
Online Disinformation and Hate Speech: Mainstream media is the main propagator of disinformation. The government has also utilised the internet to further sow distrust toward non-government organisations, journalists, and human rights defenders (HRDs). At the time of the resignation of former president Rajapaksa, misinformation and malicious content were circulated online, echoing the 2020 report findings regarding the mainstream media’s large contribution to producing misinformation. Facebook accounts affiliated with the former president and his cabinet were used to discredit the protests and their organisers.
Digital Hygiene: Journalists, HRDs are most in need of digital hygiene resources. Many journalists and HRDs in Sri Lanka found it challenging to separate personal and professional profiles in their social media use, thus inadvertently providing identifiable information which can potentially be used against them. This matches research findings regarding the high prevalence of the average Sri Lankan sharing personal information online. The availability of existing resources for digital hygiene is also limited due to a lack of localization in the Sinhala language.