19 May 2016
Earlier this year, we wrote about how the entire Medium.com website was being blocked in Malaysia, after a publication it hosted, called the Sarawak Report, had been doing detailed, independent journalism on corruption in the Malaysian government, including a story about $700 million magically appearing in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s personal bank account. The government first blocked access to the Sarawak Report’s own website, and then to all of Medium after Sarawak started reposting all of its articles there. The government had first contacted Medium, via the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), asking the company to remove an article.
Medium’s legal team wrote back to the MCMC, requesting more details to understand if the request was legitimate. But without any further response, the Malaysian government just blocked all of Medium.
And, apparently, that was just the beginning. Because the government is now pushing a new law that gives the MCMC much more power to silence criticism online. And a big part of this is removing the intermediary liability protections that service providers have. This is a topic that we’ve discussed an awful lot — especially with regards to things like Section 230 of the CDA in the US, which makes websites immune from liability for actions of their users. Many people try to attack these protections, claiming that they’re just protecting big companies, but they’re actually very much about protecting the public’s ability to speak freely — and the situation in Malaysia is a perfect example.
Without strong intermediary liability protections, websites will now have very strong incentive to immediately block or take down any content that might displease the government, for fear that leaving it up will lead to legal consequences. This is also why we’re so concerned about the recent lawsuits in France claiming that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube didn’t take down offensive comments fast enough. Expecting service providers to police and monitor content is a path to widespread censorship.
In Malaysia, a coalition of civil society/public interest groups are fighting back against this new law, and trying to spread the word about its possible impact.
These changes, if introduced and passed by Parliament, together with the amendments to restrict bail for all offences under Section 124 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which has been used against activists and the media. Both the amendments will have combined effect of entrenching censorship in an environment already heavily regulated for the media and publishing.
It is regrettable that the government has done little consultation with stakeholders, proving yet again the absence of political will for open and democratic law making processes in Malaysia. Civil society stands to be most affected by the proposed amendments as we constitute the majority of the internet population, and as such, it is critical that our views and voices are duly recognised and reflected.
We agree that the laws governing the internet need to be reviewed for them to have stronger provisions for privacy and protections for freedom of expression. But these are not being prioritised; instead we see a pattern of reviewing laws to extend the powers of the executive to conveniently target media, political opponents and individuals critics.
The attempts to crack down on free speech on the internet around the globe are extremely concerning. The success in some countries is only making other countries even bolder in their attempts to suppress speech as well.