Does the end justify the means for censorship?
KUALA LUMPUR, May 23 — Mention the “c” word these days, and everyone gets edgy and nervous. After all, the issue of censorship is always a prickly issue, regardless which country you’re from.
In a series of articles in The Malaysian Insider some months ago, I advocated against censorship despite the growing worry that the Internet brings evil elements to the world, especially to young ones.
This is particularly important for us in Malaysia as we are one of the few countries in the world that have specific legislation against censorship of the Internet.
With these guarantees in place, Malaysia’s online space has flourished especially this past decade as the participatory element of the World Wide Web is at its highest.
Coupled with the developments on the Internet front spearheaded by open Internet-based companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google, Malaysians today are far more exposed to an open Internet economy than ever before.
However, with the open nature of the Internet in play, so comes the darker side of the Internet.
This hit home even more recently after a conversation I had with Ola-Jo Tandre, Telenor group’s director of corporate responsibility, where certain realities came to light, many of which unfortunately are not openly discussed enough.
According to Tandre, the horrific nature of child sexual abuse, otherwise known as child pornography, exists openly on the Internet but it isn’t a topic that people — especially parents — like to talk about.
“In 2004, we started looking into this issue,” he says. “Back then we realised that as an Internet Service Provider (ISP), this kind of illegal content was being sent through our network, and so we had to do something to counteract it.”
Noting that such content is against Norwegian law, Tandre says that as the incumbent operator in Norway, Telenor chose to partner with the Norwegian Criminal Investigation Service in a bid to fight such a menace.
“We said to them, you are the guys monitoring this kind of activity — people who are offering child sexual abuse material on a commercial basis,” Tandre explains.
“We offered to put a stop to it not by applying a blanket ban on these sites but by choosing to work closely with the authorities in banning only specific websites that the police tells us to, through a blacklist.”
Asked if this constituted censorship, Tandre acknowledged that it is a grey area but was quick to qualify that each blacklisted website was acted upon on a very specific basis, done on a case-to-case basis.
“This blacklist is handed to us by the Criminal Investigation Service and we have no hand in compiling it. We feed it into our systems and it gets blocked. When we do so, we make it absolutely clear that we have done this in accordance with the law and that we are not censoring or going after individual users but rather, we do it to prevent criminals from making money from such content.”
Tandre says the main reason why Telenor wanted to do this is to ensure that the environment for its customers is “clean” and that it would not support hosting illegal material on its networks.
“Regrettably, once the photos are uploaded, there is no way of getting rid of them,” he says.
“But perhaps the most convincing argument is that those children who have become victims would know that the crimes they were once subjected to will not be repeated every time someone visits such sites.”
This issue is indeed a complex one, and in my humble opinion, not an easy one to tackle.
If such moves were made to selectively censor certain websites, what’s to stop the authorities from going a step further?
Some would also argue that the selective blocking of even heinous websites like child pornography is still censorship by some other name.
This is especially so in the context of our country, where the smallest of issues can be construed as being too sensitive for the public, and therefore suffers the axe.
Says Tandre: “We realise that our model is controversial in many respects as it is about blocking and censorship. For Telenor, we are not advocating blocking when it comes to a lot of problematic stuff out there.
“However, when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable of our society — young children who have become victims of horrible crimes — I think strong measures are justified; hence that’s why we’ve done this.”
Tandre conceded that it is an individual country’s call whether to go ahead with this or not but for Norway, Telenor has helped 98 per cent of other ISPs in Norway to implement such moves.
He added that Telenor has a very good partnership with the Interpol, where it has the resources to track such content in a blacklist, which can be used by any country around the world.
“We’ve been talking to Malaysian authorities hoping that something like this can be put in Malaysia and we remain optimistic that this could happen.”
As a parent, I would never want any of that sort of content to reach my children, or even adults.
But at the same time, I do agree that selective censorship of content is indeed a slippery slope.
One encouraging factor in this the case of the Norwegian model is that ISPs clearly delineate between the people who track such websites and the people who will administer the blocking, thereby ensuring the separation of powers between the two.
This is a good model to follow but the clear demarcation between the two must be preserved by hook or by crook in order that the powers that be cannot control the two parties and wield its influence to selectively block other forms of content.
I don’t have all the answers, but whatever the case is, such issues must be brought to the fore and policy makers, and those involved in cyber security, must look seriously into such things.
It’s time to lift the taboo over such topics and truly find out workable solutions to such menace that have existed, and will continue to exist for a long time to come.
* Edwin Yapp, a columnist with The Malaysian Insider, is also co-founder and senior editor of Digital News Asia a digital publication covering the tech ecosystem that will go “live” in May. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.