By Himal Kotelawala
Sri Lanka needs to consolidate its existing laws against harassment and computer crimes in order to introduce one single, all-encompassing law to fight cyber bullying and online harassment of women and children, as the Computer Crimes Act falls short on addressing cyber bullying or cyber violence, an expert panel declared yesterday.
Speaking at a policy discussion on cyber security organised by the United Nations Gender Theme Group on the topic of cyber violence against women and girl children, Rashani Meegama of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) said that along with technology, cyber harassment is constantly evolving, adapting to the latest trends and developments in ICT, requiring a multifaceted approach to combat it.
“With evolving technology, the opportunity and means of which to abuse also evolve and that makes us believe as lawyers that we cannot be complacent about it,” said Meegama.
It’s not that there aren’t laws in Sri Lanka against cyber bullying, she said, pointing to existing provisions on sexual harassment, criminal intimidation, sexual exploitation of children by “whatever” means - which could be interpreted to include online exploitation - but the need of the hour is to harmonise laws pertaining to cyber bullying.
“The rule of law is undermined when laws overlap and are scattered. That is why it is important to consolidate all these laws. My first recommendation would be to follow countries like New Zeeland and Australia and bring about one specific offence on cyber crime,” said Meegama.
Governments have to be smart about it, she added, listing out the different types of cyber bullying such as sextortion, grooming (setting the stage for offline abuse) and inciting suicide that are not directly addressed by existing legal provisions which leave room for ambiguity. “When a lawyer goes to court there is always room for judicial interpretation which can go against them,” she said. The current Computer Crimes Act of 2007, which was a direct result of Sri Lanka being signatory to the Budapest Convention on Cyber Crime, is insufficient to deal with cyber bullying as it deals only with computer crimes pertaining to hacking, etc., and does not deal with cyber violence, she said.
Meegama proposed incorporating a newly formulated cyber crimes offence into the Computer Crimes Act and also called for a civil act that focuses on the matter. Another issue, she said, is the lack of a scheme for data preservation, which is one of the biggest obstacles faced by the authorities when tackling cyber crimes.
This three-pronged approach, she said, combined with a multi-sectoral holistic approach with equal participation of all stakeholders, would be necessary to successfully combat the issue.
According to Ramiz Behbudov of UNICEF, who shared data relating to cyber bullying in Sri Lanka, 90% of schoolchildren between Grades 6 and 12 have access to IT services, 53% of whom have access to the internet. Some 39% have access to digital devices with no internet connectivity. A majority of online users, according to the UNICEF survey, were boys (67% vs. 33%). Facebook is Sri Lanka’s most popular social networking site among children, with 61.7% of them using the site. About 37% use WhatsApp.
Behdudov went on to say that while the internet offers vast opportunities for children in terms of education, it also creates new vulnerabilities. Sexual exploitation, he said, can do serious harm and is also a difficult crime to prevent or respond to. Unfortunately, he noted, there is no comprehensive data on online sexual exploitation of children in Sri Lanka.
Among issues more specific to Sri Lanka, according to Behdudov, is the country’s weak link to Interpol, despite its many international treaties as cyber harassment is a borderless crime. The legal framework is largely in place but there are challenges in implementation, he said, adding that no clear national policy exists. The specialised police unit within the NCPA needs further expertise, he added.
Behdudov echoed Meegama in recommending an overarching policy, and also recommended developing and integrating a training program for police, child protection, justice and other actors. He also called on the authorities to expand on awareness raising and education on online behaviour, and also said that children too must be brought into the discussion.
“We really need to engage children in this. Unless we meaningfully bring them into this discussion, we will not be able to come up with a policy design that meets their needs,” he said.