Web filter debacle has KL red-faced

(Straits Times) KUALA LUMPUR, AUg 15 – If there is one incident that demonstrates the power of the Internet in Malaysia, it was the government’s recent red-faced climbdown over plans to filter Web content.

When the news leaked out last week – on a website, of course – that an Internet filter was in the making, an uproar broke out in cyberspace. Malaysians voiced fears that it was intended to curb political dissent as well as its stated aim of pornography.

The traditional print media picked up on it, igniting more outrage and protests. The outcry prompted a public statement by Prime Minister Najib Razak that filters were ineffective.

On Wednesday, the government formally scrapped the plan, even though Information Minister Rais Yatim said it would continue to study the flow of information on child pornography, gambling and terrorism.

It is understood that the filter proposal came about after the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission planned a study on what it called the “positive use of the Internet”.

Homing in on the root of the problem, Pulai MP Nur Jazlan Mohamed noted that while pornography is a serious problem, the scope of the proposed filter was simply too wide. “It’s stupid to block information, we have to find ways to manage it,” he said.

For Malaysians, the Internet is one of the most important sources of alternative political news and has great credibility.

Readership for news websites has grown exponentially. A Nielsen survey last year showed that four out of 10 Malaysians used the Internet for at least an hour a day. Of these, 35 per cent said they read news online.

In a survey last year of people under 35, the Merdeka Centre found that 49 per cent of the 2,500 respondents distrusted mainstream reporting of political and current issues.

The opposition has been a beneficiary of this, making use of the Web’s ability to spread information at top speed to vast numbers of people to win handsomely in the last general election.

The government has largely taken a hands-off policy, except for a few occasions when it apparently tried to block the Malaysia Today website run by Raja Petra Kamaruddin.

It has also used existing laws against him, for blog postings deemed defamatory and seditious.

The absence of direct censorship is largely thanks to a no-censorship guarantee, given when the Multimedia Super Corridor – a special IT economic zone – was launched in the late 1990s.

Rather than resort to censorship – after its election losses last year – the government decided that it would do more to harness the Internet’s power, with Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians setting up blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and even holding live chats.

An Umno leader said the party also set up an IT unit to present its side of the story on blogs when necessary. But a year later, it is apparent that few BN politicians have learnt to use the Internet effectively.

“They see the Internet as a one-way street to make a political statement,” said IT specialist Dinesh Nair.

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin is one of the savvier ones.

“For instance, Khairy intersperses his political tweets with trivial comments about his daily activities. And he replies to people. This builds relationships,” said Nair.

It works when it is done well. Political analyst Ong Kian Ming said Khairy has managed to change the opinion of some fence-sitters about him, although not to a large extent yet.

But many BN politicians tend to view blogging with suspicion.

Earlier this week, the Malaysian Chinese Association vice-president Ng Yen Yen said internal threats in the form of comments via blogs are becoming more dangerous than external threats.

Ironically, the BN’s attempt to fall back on the old mode of control via a Net filter was defeated by the netizens whom it sought to rein in.

“It’s a losing proposition. Even if the government does not block political sites, the very notion of such a law provokes a negative reaction,” said Mr Ong.

He noted that the Internet has become such a key component of the political battleground that any party that ignores it is likely to find itself handicapped.