Green Dam will only make them see red

By Koh Lay Chin (NST)

MANY Malaysians were outraged at what were purportedly incoming measures to "control bad elements" on the Internet. Most wondered if such attempts at censorship would come true.


It is with great relief therefore, to learn that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has said that the government has no desire to implement Internet filtering. He voiced sound reasoning in current realities.

Truth be told, the authorities have been completely turtle-paced when it comes to the Internet and all its children anyway. This is not a swipe, it is fact. Malaysians who have been setting up sites, playing with html and mass emailing since the Internet's blossoming in the '90s will attest to the fact that when it comes to blogging, Twittering and the like, Barisan Nasional politicos are still playing serious catch up.

Many government agencies are in the cyber stone age as far as online-savviness is concerned. There have been more than a few times where I have had to fax something simply because a department or agency would prefer that than their official emails, or that their office is "not really connected yet-lah".

Compared with many Pakatan Rakyat politicians, most BN leaders are still warming up to the idea.

Many think that having a nominal online presence means they have joined the hip and jolly party that is the Internet age. But a half-hearted online presence, updates that are cold and impersonal, and postings that sound like stiff press releases just miss the point completely.

It seems only some Umno Youth members, led by Khairy Jamaluddin, have truly embraced the technology, and understand the need and benefits of connecting and interacting with the masses online. I dare say they have even changed some minds and softened some critics with their efforts to reach out.

The prevailing elitist thought seems to be that the online masses are mostly urbanites and youngsters who can either be contained or ignored, or appeased by a token "".

These are mistakes on all counts, because it only means a failure to understand and make full use of the technology.

Anybody can be "online", it's how and what one does with it that counts. Contrary to what the authorities may think, it is not just all anti-establishment fire and slanderous material should they venture online, when properly engaged, the masses can give feedback and advice, constructive criticism and much food for thought to leaders.

Much has been said about certain portals attracting an obscene number of foul-mouthed and offensive commentators, but if one looks at other websites where the tone and decorum have been set and encouraged, there is civility and ample sound debate offered by those who seek more thoughtful discourse.

All one has to do is find them. It is vain and pointless to maintain such partisan and Bushism-styled "If you're not with us, you're against us" thinking, whether one is for or anti the establishment: it is the wealth of knowledge and differences of opinion on the Internet that one can comprehend situations and gauge the public mindset in all its diversity.

In recent events, those who kept watch online understood the different camps of thinking regarding the coverage of director Yasmin Ahmad's death, the Internal Security Act, the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, street demonstrations, and the setting up of the Royal Commission after Teoh Beng Hock's death. There were elegant counter arguments and rebuttals for those who cared to learn and understand more.

It is not that those screens and hard drives are machine-gunning information into people's brains. It is that only one person needs to read one piece of information for 10 people to end up discussing it and making it coffee-shop talk for a week. It is the people's ultimate echo chamber.

Those who have made full use of what the Internet has to offer also know full well that there are many ways to circumnavigate a ban, or work around filters, and a blocked website can be replaced by as many mushrooms as its authors may wish.

China's Green Dam project, which sought to put up filters in all computers sold in the country, was canned because of technical issues and huge protests.

If China, the bedrock of communism and censorship, has "technical issues", one just wonders how Malaysia can whip up something similar when it honestly just isn't at all ready for such a move.

But this is not about us being unable to implement such a thing in the first place, it is whether we should. More importantly, the China example serves a more important lesson.

That it wasn't technical problems which made the government backtrack, it was mainly the revolt from its people who were not going to take bureaucratic interference lying down.

If governments want to win the battle of public opinion online, it would make more sense to engage and understand their citizens online than to conduct a counterproductive mission and spectacularly annoy them.

If the prime minister gets it, it would be wise for his team members to get with the programme.

Leaders who were for filtering and censoring the Internet should smell the coffee and drop whatever plans they have to narrow this democratic space.

It would be a waste of time and money instituting any such restrictions, against the Multimedia Super Corridor Malaysia Bill of Guarantees that promises no censorship for the Internet, and it would be a public relations nightmare producing many infuriated Malaysians, not to mention millions of peeved youths now used to years of online freedom.

On a basic level, such a move would just be undue and unbecoming.