Najib quickly backpedals from unpopular Internet filter bid

By Wong Choon Mei, Suara Keadilan

Just a step away from yet another disastrous decision, Malaysia’s scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak has had little choice but to immediately deny his administration was planning to implement an Internet filter to censor anti-government blogs and websites.

“The government has no desire to implement Internet filtering. This matter will be decided by the Cabinet but all this while we have never intended to filter the internet,” Najib told reporters late on Friday.

News that Malaysia was attempting to go where ham-fisted China had backed down from had spurred massive international press coverage and comparison.

Information Minister Rais Yatim sparked a near media frenzy when he had confirmed that his government was considering a filter to block out “undesirable content”.

Said Rais: “The safety of our children is not an Internet game. We will find any way to ensure we are free from the culture of pornography among children.

“Those who call themselves liberals should look at what has happened to other countries who have become victims, where child sex occurs and pornography is widespread.”

His ministry has already sent out a tender and received replies from four firms. The proposals were due to be evaluated and announced in December by the National Security Council led by Najib.

Despite widespread doubt about the workability of such a filter, industry sources said the Malaysian model had a better chance of success than China’s Green Dam software. According to tender documents, Malaysia specified a filter at the Internet gateway level, meaning service providers such as Telekom Malaysia, Redtone, Green Packet and Axiata would have to comply with a government order to impose the blocks.

Yet despite Rais insisting that the filter was to block out smut, brickbats continued to pour in, forcing Najib to move into damage-control mode later in the day.

Said David Wong, chairman of the Computer and Multimedia Industry Association: “The government has gone against its word to ensure the medium remains open and uncensored. It will also be difficult to filter harmful content, especially that found in blogs, on the Internet as it knows no boundaries.”

Said Tian Chua, PKR strategic affairs director: “This is another sign of authoritarian trends in Najib’s regime. Internet was one of the media frontiers which it found it could not control. This is actually nothing more than a sinister attempt to control the press.”

Said Lim Kit Siang, DAP adviser: “There is a secretive and subterranean agenda to this. Once they have got a secret system, it would be easy for them to infiltrate all other sites.”

Cannot afford to have pie in his face again

Amid this onslaught – coming just days after incurring national and overseas condemnation for a brutal police crackdown on a peaceful demonstration against an oppressive law – Najib was forced to backpedal and furiously.

Since officially taking over as PM in April, he has been in one scrape after another, with an unpopular power grab against the opposition in Perak state a key turning point.

Since then, public confidence in him and the federal institutions at his command have plunged sharply, with Malaysians no longer comfortable with the system of governance practised by his Umno-BN coalition.

“Firstly because it is not effective, secondly, it may cause dissatisfaction among the people because in this ICT and borderless age, information moves around freely,” the PM tried hard to pacify an irate citizenry this evening.

Malaysia has a vibrant Internet culture, with broadband penetration set to hit 50 percent of all households by 2010. The country has a youthful and multi-racial population of 27 million.

But despite the latest U-turn, analysts said Najib’s bid to police cyberspace also showed his fear of  the Internet culture that emerged in 1998 after arch rival and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed on trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy.

With no access to mainstream media and little in the way of funding, the opposition mounted by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah nevertheless managed to harness the power of the Internet to its advantage.

In a short 10 years, it did what was previously thought to be impossible – deny Najib’s Umno-BN coalition a two-thirds parliamentary majority at the 2008 general election. The advance of Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat has since continued, with Najib losing lost six of the past seven by-elections.

Said prominent lawyer and blogger Haris Ibrahim: “The government cannot take the people to be such idiots. There has been pornography in the Internet for so long. Don’t tell me the government did not know that. It is only a matter of time as and when they would blackout access to other sites.”

Said Denison Jayasooria, a commissioner at the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia: “This goes against the basic human right of freedom to knowledge and information. Access to alternative views has always been curtailed in the mass media.

“The Internet therefore provides a space for such views. Any further censorship of the Internet may stunt the development of our society.”