A new citizens’ initiative called SafeWebLK has recently been launched with the aim of setting up a code of good practice for online security. This particularly relates to how global internet companies self-regulate content originating from Sri Lanka. As such, the initiative will work with these global companies to agree a set of commitments on responses to issues of misinformation, hate speech and online harassment.
In January 2021, Sri Lanka reported an internet penetration rate of 50.8% of the population, a year-on-year increase of 800,000. In June of the same year, there were 2.359 million fixed broadband subscriptions and 18.269 million mobile broadband subscriptions. It’s no secret that the pandemic continues to push more towards the digital sphere, with online education and remote working taking precedence. Thus, online security is increasingly becoming a crucial element.
Yes, most tech platforms have their own set of community guidelines that aim to combat misinformation, hate speech, and other forms of similar toxicities. However, these guidelines will go no further and often fail to protect communities and individuals at the local level such as in Sri Lanka. This is where SafeWebLK aims to step in.
The SafeWebLK initiative is an effort by think tank Factum, while global tech company collaboration will be facilitated through the Asia Internet Coalition. “The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) is committed to working with industry partners to build a self-regulatory framework that will pave the way for the development of Sri Lanka’s Code of Practice for Online Safety and harm,” said AIC executive director Jeff Paine.
Growing need for legislative protection
Countries around the world are already looking to introduce their own code of practice as well as regulations for global tech players in specific markets. For example, in 2016 the European Union introduced a code of conduct as a way to prevent and counter the spread of illegal hate speech online. At the time, the European Commission reached an agreement with Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter until Snapchat and LinkedIn joined them years later.
In 2020, the Australian government introduced its own legislation establishing a mandatory code of conduct for online platforms operating in the country. A notable code implication requires platforms like Facebook and Google to publicly notify when major changes are made to the algorithms that affect the display of news content.
The UK is also preparing a legislature to tackle this space with its Online Safety and Digital Markets Unity Bill. In fact, the UK’s Online Safety Bill has also extended its coverage to deal with fraudulent advertisements.
As more people go digital and increase their reliance on social media, more regulators around the world are likely to introduce similar regulatory measures. Sri Lanka is among the last to take this route.
SafeWebLK: Drafting Sri Lanka Code of Practice for Online Platforms
SafeWebLK officially launched on March 16, which includes a public call for written submissions and consultations with notable stakeholder groups. Once the code of practice has been drafted, the document should be made public on the Factum website for review.
According to Nalaka Gunawardene, who leads Factum’s core group that will oversee the SafeWebLK process, “Industry codes of practice represent the next level of self-regulation, where multiple technology companies publicly commit under the same framework to improve the content monitoring in a country or region.”
While SafeWebLK seeks to work on an industry code of practice for online safety, it should be noted that Sri Lanka has a difficult relationship with social media in general. This is true both at the governmental level and at the individual level. Incidents like the death of young people over a TikTok video or this 2018 cyberbullying incident demonstrate just how deep this issue runs and there is a lot of work to be done in this space. Time will tell how exactly the SafeWebLK initiative will solve many of these problems. But for now, it’s an important step in the right direction.