Malaysia: A Step Closer To Internet Censorship?

The Malaysian government is looking into the feasibility of installing an Internet filter to block “undesirable websites”, along the lines of the People's Republic of China's abandoned “Green Dam” software. The reason for this new move is so that racial harmony in multicultural Malaysia is maintained, according to news site Malaysiakini.

According to the Malaysian Insider, the feasibility study is to be completed by December 2009 and “the results will be handed to a shadowy unit monitoring blogs and websites although the decision on implementation will lie with the National Security Council headed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.”

The move is has critics and opposition politicians crying foul as it breaches the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) Bill of Guarantees. Furthermore, IT specialists have also said the move is “a waste of time”, which then makes the use of public funds in this endeavour questionable.

The Information, Communication and Culture Ministry has called for tenders for this proposed Internet filter. Unsurprisingly, this development comes hot on the heels of the previous proposal of getting bloggers registered.

The Centre for Independent Journalism has stated:

This is a clear violation of the commitment made in the promotion of the Multimedia Super Corridor and the Bill of Guarantees that ensures no censorship of the internet. Any form of control or filtering is a violation of freedom of speech, as enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

The real beneficiaries of control of information and expression over the Internet or any other forms of the media, is the ruling party in power. Reports by local and international human rights organizations point to the deliberate attempts by the Barisan Nasional government to target online spaces, which host a range of critical views on governance, transparency, accountability and maladministration. In this regard, any moves to institutionalize filtering will be seen as strengthening the executive's powers in controlling content online.

Opposition veteran, Lim Kit Siang, has stated on his blog:

It is most shocking that Rais [Yatim - the Information, Communication and Culture Minister], who is generally regarded as the most level-headed and liberal of the existing Cabinet Ministers, is spearheading a move which will not only bury the government's pledge to the world of “No Censorship” in the MultiMedia Super Corridor (MSC) Bill of Guarantees announced by Tun Dr. Mahathir in his heyday as Prime Minister, but will be seen as a turnaway from an Open Society and retreat to a Closed Society with all the grave long-term political, economic and nation-building implications.

Of this new move, Din Merican states on his blog:

As a blogger this makes me happy – it's a sign, like the Saturday crack down and ensuing barrage of negative press against Anwar Ibrahim, that we're doing our job well and the corrupt people who run this country are incapable of addresing their fabulous unpopularity except by stifiling dissent and preventing the free flow of information.

And it is well known that Internet filters don't work. The minute one goes up, I along with all my fellow bloggers will teach you how to circumvent the filters in case our sites are deemed to be “undesirable.”

But what will foreign investors think? Especially the technology companies we are trying to woo? Microsoft? Dell? Google?

It will be interesting to see if social networking and viral news-sharing technology will be shut out as well in Malaysia's bid to bar freedom of information. Perhaps the call of the Prime Minister's wife, Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor, a few days before this development that Malaysians should use the Internet wisely will not be necessary if the Internet filter is imposed.

Update: Information Communication and Culture Minister, Rais Yatim, just clarified that the Internet filter is meant to block pornography, and not a means to curtail freedom of expression. He denied that the proposal is to muzzle bloggers, who are subject to the usual laws of the land.

Update: A day after the announcement, Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, has stated that the government will not censor the Internet. He was quoted as saying:

Up till now there is no change in the Government's Internet policy… However, we will discuss this matter.

It is unclear who Prime Minister Najib means by “we”.

Update: The idea for an Internet filter might be (temporarily) scrapped. See this report.

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