Technology

Oil and water: Governments and the Net

April 04, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 — One should never start a column with a question, but here’s one nonetheless: Are you okay with censoring child pornography on the Internet?

Don’t be too quick to answer. Are you a parent? Do your children have access to the Internet? Are you savvy enough to use the filtering options on your browser to ensure certain types of content are kept out of their sight? Are your children savvy enough to get by such attempts, or have friends who are?

This is what I call the “Child Porn Defence” of Internet censorship, and despite my professional objections to any form of censorship, on any medium, my personal feelings sometimes make me squirm and hope the issue be kept strictly academic.

However, the real world is not academic. It is messy and full of such conundrums. You can’t play Captain Picard and proclaim, “The line must be drawn here! This far and no further!”

In the real world, lines shift and compromises have to be made. There is more than one point of view. And there’s government.

Let’s face it: Governments the world over have never been comfortable with the virtual world, or anything they can’t have a direct influence over. Technology has wrought great changes in society, and governments — like many of us, when you actually think about it — have had a hard time keeping up.

Different governments have different concerns. The government of the United States, that “hotbed of capitalism,” for instance, has used piracy of content in industries well represented by well-heeled industry lobbyists to push for the enactment of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act or the shorter Protect IP Act (PIPA).

And we won’t even bring up how the so-called “War on Terror” has seen civil liberties being trampled on in both cyberspace and the real world, with the infamous Patriot Act.

Britain wants to enact a law that would allow its Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to monitor all phone calls, texts, emails and online activities to “help tackle crime and militant attacks,” its Interior Ministry said on Monday.

Internet companies would be required to install hardware which would allow the GCHQ to gain real-time access to communications data, though only if they produce a warrant.

The Malaysian government, not the worst culprit on stage if the enactment of these new laws and others being mulled by the European Union come to fruition, on the other hand, has always had problems with communications and the dissemination of information.

Decades of controlling just about every information outlet to the masses, except those odd copies of Aliran, The Rocket and other newsletters with limited distribution, has made it completely unready for the Internet. It has been struggling since the Internet became available to the Malaysian public in the early 1990s.

It has had all the tools in place to control almost all information being disseminated to the masses, with properly massaged messages to give only its point of view: Ownership of all the major media organisations; a raft of repressive laws that give it the power to close down any “recalcitrant” organisation that dared pushed the envelope; laws to incarcerate individuals without bothering about the burden of proof; and at one time, general apathy amongst the masses on their right to freedom of speech and expression.

Then this Internet thing appeared. The government tried to control it, found it couldn’t do so, so brilliantly co-opted it into the cause, culminating in the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project. This led to the “No censorship of the Internet” pledge of then-prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, also formalised in the Bill of Guarantees for MSC-status companies.

This was cemented a couple of years later when the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 included Section 3.3 which states, “(3) Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet.”

However, the government has never stopped trying to control the flow of information — censorship under a different name or process that smelled just as foul.

Last Friday, I attended a roundtable discussion on Internet censorship organised by the Centre For Public Policy Studies at the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI), which wants to formulate a policy recommendation. Speakers and participants included representatives from the online media, journalism advocates, quasi-government agencies, bloggers and others.

We looked at various attempts by the Malaysian government to control the flow of information, from our own “Green Dam” project to wall up the Internet and others including website filtering, the lopsided enforcement of criminal defamation and sedition laws, to the continued denigration of online media by government leaders still trying to hoodwink the Malaysian public into thinking that only the mainstream media is credible and tells the truth.

The discussion covered much ground, and even went off into interesting tangents about “Malaysian cyberculture,” but my conclusion — one not shared by all — was that there should be no policy, just that “no censorship” pledge.

On that same day, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak repeated his administration’s plans to bring the online media under the same steel-shod heel that the mainstream media have to cower under.

These attempts will not cease. They will throw all sorts of arguments at us, and some may even be good and valid points for some kind of legislation to control or keep at bay the darker, less legal aspects of the Internet.

But the line must be drawn here. This far and no further.

Sure, that child porn argument still gets me. Crack down on those rings, put those bastards behind jail. But I don’t expect the government to do my parenting for me.

But if you want to help, then you might think of other kinds of regulations. Get internet service providers (ISPs) to provide free consultancy services to help their subscribers block the websites they might want to block, whether it is because they do not want their children surfing these sites or because their own moral or religious codes forbid them.

It should be mandatory for the ISPs, and completely voluntary on the part of the user. Leave us to police our own morals and help us shield our children, but don’t censor the Internet.

* A. Asohan is co-founder and executive editor of Digital News Asia, a digital publication covering the tech ecosystem that will go “live” in late April. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.