Where The Arm Of The Law Isn’t Long Enough

In today’s NST, page 16:

OPINION: Where the arm of the law isn’t long enough
Chow Kum Hor

Sept 23:
Hiding under anonymity, some Internet surfers are leaving a trail of seditious and inflammatory comments on Malaysian-run blogs. The authorities need to show they mean business in dealing with these cyber culprits, writes CHOW KUM HOR.

EVEN Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, a staunch believer in free speech, is not averse to a little censorship when it comes to the Internet.

Since starting his own blog on Aug 30, the DAP stalwart’s online journal has been inundated with responses from readers — some of which are too objectionable, if not downright seditious, to see the light of day.

“I and a group of people managing the blog reluctantly removed these comments. It is an unpleasant thing but perhaps necessary,” says Lim in his office in Parliament as he prepares to pen an entry for his blog at limkitsiang.blogspot.com.

With a claimed average of 2,000 unique visitors to the blog daily, some of them are bound to post comments that tread on racial, religious or politically-sensitive ground, he says.

He uses a rule-of-thumb in deciding which of the feedback is accepted: If remarks against other people are deemed offensive when used against oneself, then it would be deleted.

Lim is not alone in making sure that blogs are not perverted for the dissemination of hate or outright lies.

Recently, two bloggers, Peter Tan, 39, and Ameer Zulkifli, 34, lodged police reports against an anonymous writer who posted malicious messages on their blogs.

Ameer, better known in the blogosphere as “Mack”, describes his report as a “pre-emptive measure”. “Your blog is like your home. If any crime is committed there, you are duty-bound to lodge a police report.

“You do not want to be an accessory to the crime,” says the Subang Jaya-based management consultant.

Under the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, the owner of a website or blog will be held accountable for offensive, seditious or defamatory content — even if these are posted by others.

Fellow blogger Aizuddin Danian gives an analogy: “Take the case of newspapers. If they publish seditious letters from readers, the newspapers are also held accountable.”

While Malaysian bloggers advocate the free flow of ideas and information, they also want to see responsible conduct online. Many feel the onus should fall on the bloggers to ensure that the public platform they offer is not hijacked for illicit purposes. Unfortunately, that is about as far as it goes.

The two main authorities — the police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) — have no means of effectively monitoring Malaysian-run blogs, a figure estimated to run into the tens of thousands.

“It would be an endless task to monitor everything that appears on the Internet,” says MCMC corporate communications head Adelina Iskandar. “We therefore act on complaints.”

But Federal Territory Umno Youth chief Datuk Norza Zakaria is unhappy with the authorities’ slow response to illegal postings on the Web compared with countries like Singapore. Three Singaporeans were recently arrested and charged for posting remarks derogatory to Muslims on their blogs.

“We are too slow. Authorities must act faster. Don’t forget we live in a multi-racial country,” he says. “We need to take the first step. We need to bridge the gap between the authorities and culprits and let these culprits know that we are serious.”

The “first step” came in the form of Ameer’s and Tan’s Sept 17 police report against the anonymous surfer going by the nickname “good man”, who had posted racist diatribes on their websites.

Ameer says the number of irresponsible comments to his blog at www.brandmalaysia. com has fallen since, although “good man” has intensified his posting spree.

He has also provided the police with the poster’s Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is a series of unique numbers that can help track the Internet Service Provider and the origin of the postings.

Ameer adds that if “good man” can be traced and charged, it will serve as a reminder that surfers are not completely anonymous online. “Then, people will be more cautious about what they can or cannot say.”

Still, given the seamless nature of the Internet, building up a case against online offenders is no easy task.

For the first six months of this year, the MCMC received 131 complaints, ranging from the pornography-related to seditious messages.

“The first thing we do is to get the IP addresses. Then we see if the contents are offensive. We also work with the police,” says Adelina.

But so far, the regulatory body has not brought anyone to book.

For one, the MCMC has no jurisdiction if the computer servers of alleged offenders are located overseas. And then, there are numerous software and security loopholes that tech-savvy surfers can exploit.

These include “bouncers”, IP-masking software, open proxies and “anonymisers”. The authorities are also powerless to act against cyber criminals who operate from outside the country.

Even the police are sometimes stumped trying to stay abreast of the latest technological advances and the proliferation of blogs, most of which are hosted overseas.

Deputy Internal Security Minister Chia Kwang Chye, however, warns computer users against testing the Government’s resolve to nail down criminals on the Internet.

Ameer wants the Government to require all cybercafe patrons to register before using the facilities.

“There is no need to be afraid or hide under anonymity if you are not doing anything illegal. You must be accountable for what you say and write.”

He is also getting support from fellow bloggers to draw up and adopt a “manifesto” on the dos and don’ts in the blogosphere. “It will be our informal code of conduct.”

Aizuddin, who owns and manages Project Petaling Street, which serves as a directory for Malaysian blogs, says that in the final analysis, bloggers themselves are responsible for the content on their websites.

He just wants the authorities to give some leeway for bloggers who do not remove seditious content on time. “We can’t be monitoring our blogs 24 hours a day. Give us 48 hours to remove them.”

By that time, however, the damage might already have been done.

Now that two police reports have been lodged over the posting of seditious messages online, the ball is in the authorities’ court.

It is up to the police to send a strong signal to Malaysian surfers that they do not tolerate abuse of the Internet’s freedom and scorn for the nation’s laws — whether from “anonymous” surfers or otherwise.

Case referred to deputy public prosecutor

IN October 2004, an Internet surfer going by the nickname “Anwar” posted a message on “Screenshots”, a blog owned and managed by Jeff Ooi.

The respondent in Ooi’s forum argued that it was unacceptable to compare Islam Hadhari and money politics to “water and oil” because water and oil are suci (pure).

The person, instead, stated that Islam Hadhari and money politics were like “faeces and urine”.

This raised the ire of Umno Youth, with vice-head Khairy Jamaluddin demanding that Ooi apologise for allowing the profanity to be published.

Ooi had earlier removed the posting and blocked the anonymous “Anwar” from his website.

Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik then directed his officials to investigate the case.

Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission corporate communications head Adelina Iskandar, when contacted this week for an update, says the case is now before the deputy public prosecutor.

The online version is here.

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.