Malaysian Internet Censorship is Going from Bad to Worse
Following our previous articles about increasing political censorship of the Internet in Malaysia, things have quickly gone from bad to worse. In fact since July 2015, the Malaysian government has blocked at least ten websites, including online news portals and private blogs, for reporting about the scandal surrounding Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak over his mysterious private dealings with $700 million in funds.
Among the latest developments include the state's blocking of online news portal, The Malaysian Insider, due to their reporting on the scandal—a blatant act of press censorship which drew official comment from the U.S. Department of State. Local activist Fahmi Reza has also come under investigation for his parody clown images depicting the Prime Minister posted to his Twitter account.
And the Malaysian government still clamors for more censorship authority, adding to its existing broad powers under the Penal Code and the Sedition Act. Currently, the government is planning to table the amendments to both the Official Secret Act (OSA) and the Communication & Multimedia Act (CMA) during its upcoming March or May Parliamentary sessions, to strengthen its control over content providers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and end users.
Communications & Multimedia Act Amendments
As it stands, the CMA is already very expansive (although, we argue, not expansive enough to make current acts of Internet censorship lawful). In its present form, section 211 of the CMA addresses intermediaries such as ISPs, and section 233 addresses users, both in somewhat similar terms. In both cases, criminal penalties are imposed for any “comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.”
As concerns ISPs, proposed changes would remove the intention requirement of that provision, making it much easier for ISPs to be held liable for content of their users, regardless of their complicity or knowledge of the motivations with which it was posted. Fines for breaching this provision would increase twenty-fold, with an additional daily fine to increase one hundred-fold, potentially putting intermediaries out of business for a single infringement.
For the users who post such content, penalties would also increase: fines would double and and prison terms triple. Not only this, but ISPs would be placed under new data retention obligations, allowing users' activities to be tracked online—perhaps to the level of granularity of recording their Web browsing history, although this remains unclear.
The government also aims to add the power to immediately require the removal or blocking of offending content merely on the basis of a complaint, and unwarranted complaints would be penalized with merely a $50 slap-on-the-wrist. In “serious” casesincluding those that fall within sections 211 or 233, as well as terrorism, pornography, and phishing, these blocks are permanent. In other cases, such as copyright infringement, the block would last for 5 days before they can be renewed by court order. Blocking by court order is actually an improvement, if you can call it that, from the present situation in which such blocks are being made illegally in response to mere requests from government agencies.
Finally, foreign websites will be deemed to be subject to local laws, including Malaysia's restrictive content rules—amongst the films that Malaysia has banned is Zoolander. Any foreign websites that do not comply with Malaysia's demands could be legally blocked, thereby consigning Malaysian Internet users to a government-approved walled garden of sanitized content.
These proposed new censorship laws would contravene international human rights law including Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which provides a “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers”), as well as deviating from internationally accepted best practice principles such as the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability.
What can Malaysians and their friends around the world do about these new censorship moves by the increasingly repressive Malaysian regime? One simple step that you can take now is to click below to join a Change.org petition to unblock Medium, which was blocked in its entirety because, amongst its millions of pages, it also mirrored the content of the banned Sarawak Report. Unfortunately Malaysia is not the only country within its region whose residents are suffering online censorship—read more about the state of free expression online in Southeast Asia.
Thanks to Malaysian NGO Sinar Project for their help with this report.