Good luck trying to police online speech
By Oon Yeoh, TODAY
First Published 5th October 2005
Blogging was hot a couple of years back. Then, moblogging and vlogging (mobile and video blogging respectively) came along to make blogging seem so old fashioned.
Now, podcasting – a method of publishing audio programmes via the Internet – is starting to catch on. It’s already the rage in the United States.
But just when you thought blogs had become passe bloggers from both sides of the Causeway are making the news again, though for the wrong reasons.
I read with interest the three sedition cases in Singapore where two bloggers allegedly posted racist comments while another is accused of making a racist posting in an online forum.
These cases have stunned the Singaporean online community, particularly bloggers. The shockwaves have reverberated all the way to Malaysia. Several high-profile local bloggers recently took unprecedented pre-emptive action to avoid suffering a similar fate as those charged in Singapore.
Neither Mr Ameer Zulkifli of www.brandmalaysia.com, nor Mr Peter Tan of www.petertan.com/blog, is prone to posting racial slurs on their blogs. But they occasionally have visitors who are.
Recently, both blogs received visits by someone who goes by the name “good man”, who posted some racially-inflammatory comments. In response, both Mr Ameer and Mr Tan filed police reports against “good man”.
This might seem like an overreaction but who can blame them? After all, what’s deemed to be seditious or illegal offline is deemed to be the same online.
So, if seditious comments appear on their blogs, they could be liable.
But surely, if the authorities were to charge anyone for seditious online speech, they would go after the mischievous reader who posted the comments rather than the blogger himself, right?
Ideally that should be the case but under Malaysian laws, a blogger is responsible for anything that appears on his blog, including readers’ comments.
Mr Jeff Ooi (www.jeffooi.com), probably Malaysia’s most famous blogger, learnt this the hard way last year when the police questioned him for inflammatory comments that a reader had posted on his blog.
But this is not just a problem that bloggers in Malaysia face. There is an ongoing case in the US that is being closely watched by bloggers and legal experts alike because it concerns comments posted by visitors to a particular site.
Traffic-Power.com, a search engine optimisation company, has sued blogger Aaron Wall for defamation and publication of trade secrets over readers’ comments that appeared on his blog.
Mr Wall’s blog, which deals with search engine optimisation (techniques used by websites to get themselves highly ranked by search engines) had readers’ comments that were critical of tools sold by Traffic-Power.com. The US Courts have ruled in the past that operators of computer message boards cannot be held liable for statements posted by others.
Blogs might or might not get the same legal protection. But it’s not clear yet.
That’s the thing with cyber laws. Most of them are still works in progress. Old laws are ill-equipped to deal with new issues brought about by new technological developments. So, new laws have to be made to keep up with the times. But technology keeps changing.
If you think blogging is creating a lot of headaches for the authorities in Malaysia and Singapore – imagine the chaos when podcasting takes off. For those unfamiliar with it, think of it as a kind of online-based broadcast that users can download on to their MP3 players or play off their PC.
The reason why podcasting is such a disruptive technology is that virtually anyone can now be a broadcaster. Podcasting has not taken off in either Malaysia or Singapore because of two reasons.
First, it is harder technically to create a podcast than a blog. But that will change. When blogging first started in the late 90s, it wasn’t easy to create your own blog. Now, a young child can do it. The same will happen with podcasts.
Secondly, not many people have MP3 players yet. That too will change.
Not just because MP3 players are growing in popularity, but because increasingly, mobile phones are being embedded with MP3-playing capabilities. If this trend continues, pretty soon, everyone with a phone will have an MP3 player.
The authorities on both sides of the Causeway have the upper hand, and they have bloggers fearful of being charged with sedition. But in the long run, such prosecutions cannot possibly be sustained.
In due time, there will be way too many bloggers (and podcasters) to monitor. And many of them will do their postings anonymously. What will the authorities do then? – TODAY
Oon Yeoh is a writer based in Kuala Lumpur. He is author of Transition – Making Sense of the Digital Age.