Tinkering with Net freedoms has its costs

(The Star) FOUR companies have reportedly submitted proposals for an Internet filtering system that the Government is considering.

Although there is no change in Malaysia’s free-flowing Internet policy so far, a decision on whether to continue with it is due in December.

The problem is said to be Internet pornography threatening juvenile sensibilities.

Although pornography’s impact is potentially more serious, the situation is akin to how computer games and television are said to consume too much of schoolchildren’s time.

The key is similar: effective parental control. It is too easy for parents lacking the time or responsibility to nurture their children to pass the job to the state instead.

If pornography is dangerous for children, then any filtering system should block it for children alone.

Critics say filters can easily cover more than the purported target. Whatever is defined as pornography might cover what is deemed obscene, then what is considered undesirable, and then what is said to be unsuitable – with these judgments being subjective and arbitrary, if not also political.

In practice, there is still no foolproof filter. Common complaints are a failure to filter out all the targeted material, or filtering out too much, including innocent content, or both.

The general experience of developed countries is not to filter content at all. This provides for a freer flow of information for research, business and other legitimate purposes, and also a measure of personal liberty consistent with democratic values.

China’s recent attempt to introduce the Green Dam Internet filter was limited in application at first, then postponed indefinitely.

The likely reasons: effective filtering is impracticable, excessively costly, politically unpopular and opposed by international business groups which sent a note of protest to Premier Wen Jiabao.

Green Dam was touted as filtering out harmful pornography, but less than 18% of keywords related to porn. This has added to popular suspicions about official motives and widespread opposition to such censorship.

If Malaysia’s laudable Internet policy is indeed changed, suppliers of filtering systems and unblocking software can expect a brighter future.

But the onus will still be on the authorities to prove constantly that the filters do only what they are supposed to do.