Is censorship the answer?

Mention the "c" word in Malaysia these days and all hell breaks loose. Censorship is indeed a highly charged word today, given that the country has gone through another iteration of what appears to be an attempt to censor the Internet.

Two weeks ago, news reports emerged that Malaysia was at the cusp of censorship through an Internet gateway filtering system, likening it to China's Green Dam project. A day later, the Malaysian Information Minister was waylaid during a press conference and cornered into admitting that the government is looking into such a filtering system.

But, he stressed that such a move was designed to filter offensive content such as child pornography and not political dissent, as many had assumed it was trying to do.

A few days later, the Cabinet confirmed Malaysia was not about to censor the Internet as it deemed such moves ineffective in a borderless world where information flows freely. It added that there were enough existing laws to punish those who break the law, including those who perpetrate wrong doings online.

There are many reasons why a move like censorship would provoke such a strong response. To begin with, Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that has expressly stated that it would not censor the Internet. In a law outlined in the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Section 3(3) states: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet."

So, to propose any form of censorship would mean the government is not merely going back on its word, but contravening a law that is in existence.

Perhaps another major reason why this issue has caused a furor, especially in blogsphere, is that the government has been put on the defensive of late. It lost a lot of ground to opposition parties, where the battle for political propaganda is now fought more in the online realm, and less in the print world. Critics, however, feel that the proposed filtering system will blur the line on what can or cannot be published online, thereby giving the government ammunition to stifle political dissent.

It's good to note that the government clarified its position on censorship quickly as indecision on this matter would have impacted the country as a whole.

In the past, some people in the corridors of power who do not understand the Web and its associated technologies, would react to what was published online and consequently, proposed censorship as a means of dealing with the challenges that come from the open nature of the Net.

The truth is that there are many "undesirable elements" out there on the Net that affect our children and us. In fact, the government has used this as a justification for trying to impose filters on the Net. But, reflecting on it further, one would realize that censorship cannot be a simple answer to a complex issue. Someone once said: "We can't just create a 'walled-garden' to keep negativity out of the children's way because one day they will be tall enough to peep over that wall."

For starters, experts will tell you that there are many ways around filtering, of which some methods are so easily implemented that even a primary school kid can learn to do it. Second, what is right and wrong has nothing to do with technology per se, and to "kill" the Web, the medium of knowledge delivery, is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

No one can deny the power the Web has brought to our nation, least of all the government. So unless Malaysia is prepared to embrace "cyber asceticism", and isolate itself from the world, the Web is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

But to address the multi-faceted issues the Net brings to the country, there's a need to holistically and impassively look at the challenges presented by the Net, without muddling the issues at hand.

It's unfortunate that there are government officials who say while it will not censor the Internet they are worried about the political fallout of not controlling the Net; and on the opposition side, you have those who blame the government for trying to shut them out.

Notwithstanding the many conspiracy theories that have been hatched as to what each political camp is trying to do to the other, I believe that both sides of the divide need to put aside their differences and come together to address the ills of the Internet, not merely from the standpoint of content, but also from security.

Issues like spam, phishing, Web intrusion, hacking, fraud and identity thefts, are but some of the very pressing issues that need to be looked into as these instances are rising before our very eyes. Throw in Web sites that incite hatred, terrorism, trafficking of children and peddling of child pornography, we have our hands full dealing with these threats.

There is an urgent need for all stakeholders including those from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, the Science, Technology And Innovation Ministry, the Education Ministry, CyberSecurity, law enforcement, as well as not-for-profit, social-based organizations to come together and tackle these issues as they stand, free from political intervention and personal agendas.

These stakeholders must realize that the nature of the Internet is not going to change and censorship per se, is not the answer. As the world becomes more globalized and as Malaysia becomes more dependent on the Internet, the country must form comprehensive frameworks and policies--comprising legal, technical and social issues--from which to address and mitigate these threats and challenges.

Only then will Malaysians be able to find the raison d'etre for the Net's existence--that is, to positively exploit it for the betterment of the country and its people, while shunning the bad that will ultimately destroy our way of life.