PERIODICALLY, the spectre of Internet censorship is raised under the benign guise of “regulating” the internet.
In 2009, leaked documents revealed the government’s call for a tender involving the installation of Internet filters. The tender was later cancelled. A year later, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) engaged KPMG to research the “Study on Positive and Safe Use of the Internet”. It revived concerns that the government was once again looking to censor the Web. In 2011, MCA President Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek called for more effective control over online media content.
Social media, particularly Facebook, have not been spared the threat of censorship. In 2010, Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Dr Shahidan Kassim said Facebook should be blocked as it posed a threat to national security. This year, Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin took the MCMC to task for “failing to control social media”. Recently, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad even said he regretted guaranteeing internet freedom when the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) was set up in 1996.
Which brings us to the MSC 10-point Bill of Guarantees (BoG), wherein the government’s promise to “ensure no censorship of the internet” is stated. With all the recent threats of censorship, just how watertight is this promise?
They have the tech
It is clear that the MCMC can instruct Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to prohibit access to certain websites or specific types of content, including specific YouTube videos. This capability has been documented online by the Sinar Project and was clearly observed during the recent general election.
If the government already has the technological ability to censor and disconnect Malaysian “digizens” from certain parts of the internet, what is there to stop them from blocking access to certain sites, like Facebook, entirely?
While Guarantee No. 7 in the BoG states that the government will ensure no censorship of the internet, the preamble of the BoG makes it clear that this guarantee is not legally enforceable. The simple reason is that it is not law in any form.
“The BoGs reflects the government’s intention to provide an environment in MSC Malaysia that is conducive to the development of MSC Malaysia Status entities. The incentives, rights and privileges granted pursuant to the BoGs are subject to requirements under relevant laws and regulations,” the preamble states.
In other words, if the government passes a law or regulation (which is a subordinate form of law) that states, directly or indirectly, that it can censor the internet, Guarantee No. 7 is no guarantee as it were. Since the guarantee is linked to the MSC, the government can arguably claim that it is only applicable to MSC-status companies and not individual citizens.
What about the Malaysian constitution? Article 10 guarantees Malaysian citizens the right to freedom of speech, but the constitution clearly states Parliament may, if it sees fit, restrict those rights in the interest of security, public order or morality.
Accordingly, our daily access to social media, from Twitter and Facebook to online news websites, exists because digital citizens have been allowed to continue accessing them. It is a privilege that has been granted by the government, and not a legal right in any manner or form.
Would Facebook care?
With 13.3 million users and counting, Malaysia ranks 8th in Asia in terms of Facebook usage. Malaysian censoring or blocking of Facebook, however, would likely be only of concern to the public-listed company if it meant a loss of revenue.
At present, Facebook does not report its revenues by country. Nor does it report how much the Malaysian government is spending on social media advertising. Given the heavy use of social media during the recent general election, it is unlikely to be an insubstantial amount.
It is entirely possible that revenues may not be significant enough for Facebook to be too concerned about what goes on in Malaysia, given that it needs to address more pressing concerns at hand, namely, the drop in usage among teens in its key market, the US. Indeed, the irony may well be that the biggest business Facebook stands to lose if the site is banned in Malaysia is ad spending dollars from the Malaysian government.
Yes, they can… ban Facebook
At the recently concluded Umno general assembly, party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak exhorted Umno members to master new media as the key to reaching new voters. Najib also recently celebrated securing two million ‘likes’ on Facebook. It’s not likely that the prime minister will be keen on banning Facebook when he himself is heavily reliant on it as a tool for political engagement.
Economics has also motivated the government to tread carefully. Initial tender documents issued for the aborted internet filter project showed that the government clearly recognised the negative implications on the economy and foreign investment. That said, countries like China and Singapore have shown that censoring the internet doesn’t necessarily scare foreign investors away.
Ultimately, none of this means that the government won’t change its mind sometime in the future, especially with no legal restraints in place to challenge or resist such a law.
What can Malaysians do?
Dhillon Andrew Kannabhiran, chief executive officer of internet security firm Hack in the Box, said in an interview: “It’s a waste of time and taxpayers’ money. For every one way of blocking the Internet, there is another way of getting around it.”
The most obvious work-around to deep packet inspection is the use of a Virtual Private Network or VPN service, available for as little as RM0.69 per day, and which works on mobile devices as well as desktops and laptops.
But perhaps the ultimate bulwark to any attempt to ban or restrict access to Facebook, social media or the internet lies in the hands of Malaysian digital citizens themselves. To paraphrase the oft-quoted words of Thomas Jefferson, the price of digital liberty is eternal vigilance.
Bernice Low used to blog for CNET Asia but these days, she’s busy dreaming up Hollywood blockbuster movies in her other life as a screenwriter.