The Malaysian government is studying a proposal to ban Facebook in response to the rising number of alleged abuses of the popular social network. Officials have promised to ask for public feedback before acting on the proposed Facebook ban.
Communication and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek made the announcement after a Facebook user named Chandra Lawan Tetap Lawan posted a doctored photograph of a car crash that authorities deemed insulting to Malaysian King Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah. The original image showed a gory road accident with the King's image inserted into the frame. The Facebook user claimed that his account was hacked and the photo has since been removed from the site.
Shabery says his department has received 2,000 claims of abuses committed by Facebook users. Although he did not specify if these reports of abuse came from local police records or from Facebook itself, his comments suggest that these claims mainly concern hate speech and threats issued on the site.
He added that the government will listen if the people favor closing Facebook:
If the people are of the opinion that Facebook should be closed, we are prepared to look into the matter.
But Shabery himself acknowledged that blocking Facebook is “radical and quite impossible” considering there are more than 15 million Facebook users in Malaysia.
Netizens quickly lambasted the Ministry for contemplating the closure of Facebook. Twitter users called the proposal “irrational“:
Just because of 2k complaints about Facebook, you want to ban in Malaysia? 2k are not representing 25 million Malaysians..
— Ng Yuen Heng (@denixng) August 9, 2014
So Malaysia gov is considering to ban Facebook. Why not start with banning cigarettes selling in Malaysia first? — Mahira Duralim (@mayraduralim) August 9, 2014
; IMO government should not ban Facebook in Malaysia. Majority uses it for school, college, university and work purposes. — Gan Nicholas (@GanNicholas) August 9, 2014
As an alternative to closing Facebook, some have suggested the registration of Facebook accounts with the government and an amendment to the Sedition Act to cover those who use social media to spread religious hate speech. But while these proposals do not advocate the absolute censorship of Facebook, they still pose a threat to free speech.
Meanwhile, national police forces report that they have formed a task force to monitor and take action against those who use social media to spread racist and hateful remarks.
Many reminded the government about the overall positive impact of Facebook in society. Aside from providing a great platform for youth interaction, Facebook has also boosted business opportunities in Malaysia. For free speech advocate Masjaliza Hamzah, the proposal to ban Facebook is another proof of the government’s distorted view of the Internet:
The fact that this (proposal) comes from the same Ministry (Communications and Multimedia) that a few years ago proposed that a social media council be set up, shows a misunderstanding of what it is and how difficult it is to control.
A few weeks ago, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for the censorship of the Internet to protect public morality.
Writing for alternative media site Malaysiakini, Mariam Mokhtar warned that a Facebook closure could trigger the defeat of the ruling party, which has been in power since the 1950s:
Take away Facebook and face the wrath of the people. Ban Facebook and the government will risk losing Putrajaya at GE14.
Putrajaya is the nation’s capital. GE14 refers to the 14th General Elections.
Woon King Chai of the Centre For A Better Tomorrow, a Malaysian NGO, wrote that it is unnecessary to censor Facebook since majority of users behave responsibly:
Information control, which is ultimately practised only in closed regimes, goes against transparency and accountability.
The minister himself admitted that there are only some 2,000 complaints. The overwhelming majority of them do not break the law.
Is the minister also suggesting that cars should be banned in Malaysia too because they cause road accidents and fatalities?
Social media strategist Yeo Bee Yin asserted the need to defend a free and open Internet since mainstream media is already heavily regulated by the state:
With the mainstream media freedom being restricted by Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984, internet freedom becomes an important arm in protecting and promoting democracy and freedom of expression in Malaysia.
Therefore, we’ll not give an inch on any attempt by Putrajaya to limit internet freedom. Putrajaya should stop dreaming about it.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has repeatedly assured the public that online free speech will never be curtailed but he should advise the government’s ministers, retired politicians, and other influential authorities to refrain from making direct and indirect threats about undermining Internet freedom.