Content Forum chairman Tony Lee said that the forum would be guided by the principle of non-censorship of the Internet in drafting the Content Code, which is scheduled to be released for public comment in October.
“This principle is enshrined in the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) and we will abide by it,” he said.
Several parties raised their concerns on the Government’s seemingly wavering resolve to not censor the Internet after Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Rais Yatim suggested that new laws might be needed to regulate Internet content.
“It is an imperfect situation when only the print media is governed by laws while those who indulged in sedition, the misuse of religion or other criminal offences through cyberspace go scot-free,” said Dr Rais.
The Government has since sought to soothe fears of it backtracking on its commitment, with Energy, Communications and Multimedia parliamentary secretary Chia Kwang Chye giving assurances that “we are not amending or creating a new law, but we are looking at the content code to be introduced soon.”
While some observers were relieved that the Government has reiterated its commitment, the “interest” in the content code’s development has others concerned on how much of a free hand the Forum will be given in carrying out its legally-mandated exercise of industry self-regulation.
“The Code presents the Government with the opportunity to back up its promise with solid proof that it would not interfere with the Internet,” said a lawyer with one of Malaysia’s largest legal firms.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (CMC) has paved the way in efforts to put substance behind the Forum’s independence by declining to answer media queries on the Content Code and referring them to the Forum instead.
Meanwhile, Lee said the public had no cause for concern as the Code was being drafted not only for the industry, but also by the industry.
The Content Forum held its first meeting in March, during which Lee – who is also the CEO of advertising firm Batey Ads (M) Sdn Bhd – was elected chairman.
Forum members are taken from six sections of the content industry: advertisers, audio text service providers, broadcasters, civic groups, content creators and distributors, and Internet access service providers.
Members include Mimos Bhd, the Subang Jaya e-community and Federation of Malaysia Consumers Association (Fomca).
Not legally enforceable
“It’s tough at times, as we are starting from ground zero, but I feel the participation of a broad cross section of society will ensure that we come up with a Code that would be acceptable and reflects the views of the community at large,’’ said Lee.
While the Content Code will serve as a guideline for content developers and providers, they will not be bound by it, as adherence to the code would be voluntary – a key feature that is seen as a safeguard against heavy-handed censorship.
Instead, the Forum will set up a bureau to deal with complaints from aggrieved parties and initiate action against breaches.
Lee said the actions taken could include advising service providers to take down “objectionable” content.
These actions would not be legally enforceable due to the voluntary nature of the Code, but the Forum would have other means to prevent a “devil-may-care” approach towards content creation.
“Since our members come from the industry, we would need to ensure that whatever decision we make has the backing of the majority of the industry,” said Lee.
This would provide the Forum with adequate muscle to recommend industry sanctions and utilise peer pressure against a particular offender.
Repeat offenders could also come up against the Forum’s recommendations to the CMC for the suspension of their licences.
“Our recommendations would have significant weight,” claimed Lee.
The Forum derives its power from Section 213 (1) and (2) of the CMA, which states that “A content code prepared by the content forum or the Commission shall include model procedures for dealing with offensive or indecent content.”
“The matters which the code may address may include, but are not limited to:
(a) The restrictions on the provision of unsuitable content;
(b) The methods of classifying content;
(c) The procedures for handling public complaints and for reporting information about complaints to the Commission;
(d) The representation of Malay-sian culture and national identity;
(e) Public information and education regarding content regulation and technologies for the enduser control of content; and
(f) Other matters of concern to the community.”
Some observers have pointed out that other laws could be applied for serious breaches, such as the Defamation Act 1957 for defamatory or libellous content, or the CMA itself, which has provisions that govern content.
Section 211 (1) of the CMA states that “no content applications service provider, or other person using a content applications service, shall provide content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person.”
Those found guilty could be fined up to US$13,000 (RM50,000) or jailed for up to one year or both. Further fines of up to RM1,000 a day could be imposed if the offence is continued after conviction.
While no Internet content developer or provider has been found guilty of this law, the multitude of avenues suggest that the Government, or any aggrieved party, is not short of options when it comes to acting against content abuse of any kind.
The Forum is also looking into the prospect of centralising these and other laws pertaining to content so that there is a single point of contact for content industry-related issues and make dispute-resolution procedures more efficient.
Regulation of Internet content has become a particularly sticky issue all over the world. Fears that young children may be exposed to “indecent” material prompted the US Government to introduce the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) in 1996, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.