news analysis Confusion over Malaysia's reported plans to filter the Internet not only caused a stir among the local community, industry players now say the saga may also affect the country's competitiveness and confidence in its policies.
News reports last week cited plans by Malaysia's Information, Culture and Communication Ministry to build a Web filtering system. Information Minister Rais Yatim later confirmed a tender was issued for the system but said the filters would be restricted to pornographic content, particularly child pornography. He denied plans to use the filters to censor political dissidents in the country.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak was later quoted in local news daily The Star to say the government has no plans to change its Internet policy, and noted that moves to censor the Internet will be ineffective in a borderless world where information flows freely.
Following Najib's statement, the Cabinet confirmed the "government will not censor the Internet", despite claims highlighted in earlier reports.
Under its 10 Point Bill of Guarantees, the Malaysian government pledges to "ensure no Internet censorship". However, last year, it ordered the country's Internet service providers to block controversial political portal Malaysia Today.
Was issue overblown, misinterpreted?
National news wire Bernama reported that the government has not only retracted its initial plans to implement "controlled filtering", it has abandoned all notions of putting filters on the nation's Internet gateways.
Industry regulator Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) said the issue has been "taken out of context and sensationalized".
In a statement Aug. 7, the MCMC said it "initiated a proposed study to gauge the use of the Internet in a positive and safe manner". This was planned in conjunction with this year's World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, and in line with the MCMC's efforts to promote positive use of the Internet, and ensure the online safety of children and online conduct of businesses.
"The study would also give MCMC a better understanding of undesirable activities, such as online frauds and scams, phishing and identity theft as well as spam, and help it develop suitable approaches to reduce the incidence of such abuses," according to the statement.
A source close to the subject matter confirmed the study's original intent, noting that many had jumped the gun and assumed the government planned to censor the Internet, and political dissent along with it.
"The MCMC had not even begun the study, so how could the government recommend anything?" said the source, who spoke to ZDNet Asia on condition of anonymity. "Besides, who knew what [kind of] recommendations [the study] would yield? It could have turned out [to be] nothing as it's just a study."
Damage done, confidence affected
Regardless, the hoopla and comments made by government officials have drawn ire and criticism from some industry players.
"Quite clearly our Cabinet is too large and unwieldy," Teh Chi Chang, economic advisor to secretary-general of opposition party Democratic Action Party (DAP), said in an e-mail interview. "While I do not expect our ministers to agree on everything, major issues like these should be discussed and agreed before being announced."
Noting that this is not the first time the government has retracted statements, Teh said: "Such moves affect investor confidence because it gives the impression the government does not have clearly defined policies."
A CEO of a company in the life sciences and biotechnology industry, who declined to be named, said: "In a digital world, there is no such thing as censorship...while there are many things that can be done in an online world, censorship is a vain move."
"The international community's confidence in Malaysia is already at a nadir, and this move will reduce foreign investment as the international community will lose respect for and confidence in the country's policies and systems," he told ZDNet Asia.
The CEO noted that while much of the world is worried about connectivity, or the lack thereof, Malaysia is instead preoccupied with being "disconnected". He added that inconsistent moves made by local politicians will also cause good talent to leave the country.
The DAP's Teh noted that the proposal to filter the Internet reflects archaic thinking as the Web, like all inventions, can be used responsibly as well as irresponsibly.
Progressive and responsible governments should instead use the Internet to engage and deliver valuable information and services to their citizens, he said.
Rather than censor the Internet, governments should be looking at ways to generate meaningful, interesting and useful content, Teh said. "The more useful content there is, the less time people have [to abuse the Web]."
At press time, the MCMC did not return calls for comments.
Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.