Before the coming of the Internet, the State controlled information. The State could decide which information would flow to the people and what the people can know. There is a monopoly by the State on information.
This all changed with the Internet. The Internet has democratised information, especially with the advent of blogs, and later social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Smartphones are becoming more and more affordable and this meant that more and more people now have access to the Internet. Thus the State no longer had any monopoly over information.
Information could come from many sources - the alternative media, foreign media, political parties, civil society organisations and most importantly, the man on the street. The State is now merely one of the many merchants in the marketplace of information.
The phrase that information is at one’s fingertips, though clichéd, is also true. The Government appears to be finding it difficult to cope with this new landscape where the State no longer controls information.
When they no longer have the keys to adjust the flow of information to the people, they may respond by trying to restrict the information through the apparatus of the State. That is why regulatory bodies, such as the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), has blocked access to several websites on the basis that these websites have breached the law.
However, the MCMC does not have express powers under the Communications and Multimedia Act to block access to any website. When it comes to offences, the task of the MCMC is to investigate, gather evidence and submit the same to the Public Prosecutor.
By blocking access to these websites, the MCMC has gone against the MSC Bill of Guarantee, one of which guarantees that there will be no censorship of the Internet. Even the Communications and Multimedia Act itself provides that nothing in the Act can be construed to permit the censorship of the Internet.
Another reason given by the Government as to why the websites have been blocked is that these websites published content which are “confusing” the public. This reasoning is insulting to the people, making them appear as if they are stupid and easily confused. It is not the State’s business to protect people from confusion. Let people evaluate, and decide for themselves.
Even if we take it that these websites did cause confusion, causing confusion is not a crime. There is no law against “causing confusion”. It certainly does not justify the Government taking the action of blocking them.
Clearly, the action of MCMC in blocking these websites would be unsustainable in law. What they have done violates certain fundamental liberties guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, including the right to freedom of speech and information.
Restricting websites is also counter-productive and ineffective. There are many ways for a user to gain access to the website anyway. They can access the website through Facebook, or use a DNS server. Or they can also use certain applications on their smartphones.
At the end of the day, the best way to counter information is with information itself. The Government has a plethora of tools to spread the information that it wants the people to receive. If people tend to believe information coming from outside of the Government, then the Government needs to evaluate why this is happening.
The Government should realise that in today’s borderless world, all Governments need to deal an informed public. It is not a problem unique to Malaysia.
The act of restricting access to websites is done by countries with atrocious human rights record such as communist China and North Korea. We do not want to be seen keeping company with these countries when it comes to Internet freedom.
A country that upholds democratic principles should not block websites. A Government that has nothing to hide should not fear the flow of information.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.