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No, Zahid Hamidi, don’t “firewall” the Internet please

If this Malay Mail article is anything to go by, it would appear that the Government is looking to turn back on the Bill of Guarantees adopted in the early days of the Multimedia Super Corridor which promises no censorship of the Internet in this country.

It’s not the first time the idea of censorship has been raised by a Minister – this time it is Home Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi – and the truth is that many websites have already been banned (or attempted to be banned).

A couple of quick disclaimers before I go on:

  1. Only the Malay Mail Online has reported this, I’ve not seen it in any other popular media outlets. Most of the other articles I’ve read on the Internet source this article. Although the Home Minister hasn’t yet come out to deny that he made that comment, I’m going to write this article on the assumption that he did say it (MMO had recently apologised for misquoting the AG, as I blogged about previously).
  2. I know you can’t exactly “firewall the Internet” so don’t attack me for the headline – I was just trying to be clever. A. Asohan, in his brilliance, has explained why the firewall mentioned might not actually be a firewall.

I also won’t go on about the feasibility of such a “firewall”, or how people can get around it if some sort of system does indeed get implemented. Asohan’s article also nicely explains all that, on top of taking on the issue of Zahid’s statement on “religious responsibly” with regards to censorship.

I do, however, have some other thoughts on why censoring the Internet is such a bad idea (as advice to Zahid or anyone else who would consider such actions in the future) – besides the resistance is futile argument.

Malay Mail - Zahid Hamidi and Censorship

When I first read that article, all I could really think about was what kind of impact this would have on the image of our country. Granted, some public personalities in Malaysia (not just politicians) seems hell bent on getting us into international media for the strangest – and sometimes, truly absurd – reasons but censorship of the Internet is to me a different beast.

This is not something people will laugh at us about, or just dismiss as something that’s come out of a struggling developing nation.

The discourse on Internet censorship is very real and has been subjected to extensive research and focus, not just by the media but also governments, activists and academics. The implications of censorship goes beyond the notion of defending cultural (and in this case, religious) values. If such a system is implemented, there is no saying what it can be used for.

And the global narrative – and this is a legitimate one – is that Internet is usually censored to stifle dissent, as an attempt to strengthen authoritarian regimes and generally, a method for control of society. Can we not see why? After all, just look at the various lists of countries known or flagged for censorship of the Internet – do we really want to join in the ranks of China, Burma, Cuba, North Korea and Iran, among others?

I know that “human rightism” isn’t exactly in favour these days in Malaysia, but surely – in having newly been given a seat on the UN Security Council, and all this talk of moderation by our Prime Minister – that we want to distance ourselves from the oppressive image that the countries I listed above have been tagged with because of, among other things, the way they have controlled the Internet.

Then, there is also the impact that such actions will have on the amazing content that is coming out of our country. YouTube was singled out in the article, and one can only imagine how this would impact the works of some really talented Malaysians who have gone on to receive international acclaim. If YouTube was blocked a few years ago, the world would never have been introduced to the music of Yuna or Zee Avi for example. Some of our YouTubers themselves are internationally renowned and our film industry is slowly making waves around the world – our directors are being invited to present their shows at prestigious festivals the world over, and our producers are being invited to judge at equally prestigious events.

What’s more, YouTube has over the past few years helped citizens and the authorities to nab wrongdoers – we’ve saved a tiger, caught animal abusers, identified kidnap victims and more through the amazing virality that the site affords (with help from social networking sites).

And speaking of going viral, anyone who is considering censorship also needs to understand that platforms on the Internet are aplenty – if there was no YouTube, there is Vimeo, Facebook video and many more. Will all these be affected by the censorship system as well? How far are we willing to go?

The Streisand Effect is well and truly alive, and if you attempt to censor something, people are going to want to look out for it more. The wonderful thing about the ubiquity of the Internet is that someone, somewhere will find a way around things. YouTube (and the other sites I mention) are not exclusive domains for video. If people wants to share something, they will find a way – messaging apps are a great alternative and we have seen the impact of such apps to mobilise movements in countries around the world: Firechat in Hong Kong is a recent example, and the London Riots in 2011 is also referred to as the Blackberry Revolution. Torrents are another great avenue.

I ask again, how far are we willing to go? The only way to really get around all of this is to switch off the Internet – are we willing to sacrifice all those years of promoting the use of Internet technologies? All the government implementations to go digital? All the effort to achieve developed nation status in the near future?

Citizens don’t need the state to protect them (or control them for that matter) through censorship. What we need is trust, transparency and education. No doubt, bad things happen on the Internet and yes, people with bad intentions can misuse the Internet.

But as much as governments need the trust of the people, the people too need the trust by governments to know how to lead their own lives, make their own decisions and to look out for each other. We need to empower people to take on these responsibilities and not by dumbing them down by making decisions on their behalf.

Dear Home Minister, I implore you to reconsider this decision for the reasons I stated above, and many others. And if by any chance you didn’t say it, then take this opportunity to make things clear. The Internet is a great place for you to upload a short video or just post a copy of your speech or statement online to clear the air. Provided none of those platforms are censored, of course.

11.45 Malaysian time (+8 GMT)

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