A firewall around YouTube, a fence around Digital Malaysia

  • Home Minister wants to put a ‘firewall’ around YouTube and other websites
  • Biggest attack on PM Najib’s Digital Malaysia programme

A firewall around YouTube, a fence around Digital MalaysiaYOU don’t have to wait for a general election for the silly season to hit Malaysia. The latest #facepalm moment came on Nov 23 when Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that his ministry was working with industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to set up a ‘firewall’ on websites, mentioning YouTube in particular.
The minister said this would ensure content which does not adhere to guidelines set by the Film Censorship Board is not viewed by Malaysians, The Malay Mail Online reported on Nov 24.
“We are working with MCMC on this matter and I urge the commission to implement the system soon,” he said, adding that “the censorship board has a social and religious responsibility to ensure movies adhere to set guidelines.”
The above information comes from merely the first five paragraphs of the article. Let’s participate in an intellectual exercise and see how many things the minister got wrong there.
First, the Film Censorship Board – which comes under the purview of his ministry – has no “religious responsibility.” It is a secular body. Indeed, Malaysia itself, under its Federal Constitution, is a secular nation, although Islam is recognised as the official religion of the Federation.
Second, is he entirely sure his ministry is working with the MCMC to implement such a system? Sources Digital News Asia (DNA) spoke to expressed surprise with a vehemence that can be best described by a three-letter acronym starting with the letter ‘W’ and ending with ‘F.’
But hey, not everyone is privy to what goes on behind the closed doors of a Government whose officials keep claiming they’re transparent and accountable. Perhaps the MCMC has formed a stealth team of technologists and developers whose job it is to create that Holy Grail of repressive regimes everywhere: How to keep parts of the Internet out.
Or perhaps the Home Ministry has issued a secret tender for third parties to develop this magical firewall. This is Malaysia, so one never knows.
Third, he is acting as if there isn’t already a process in place to filter really questionable material like child pornography, and sometimes even not-so-objectionable websites such a file-sharing sites. The MCMC in facts blocks thousands of websites every year.
Fourth, in the case of YouTube, even if the MCMC does not block the entire website, it has made requests to Google Malaysia (YouTube is part of Google) in cases where there were actual questionable videos on the site, and Google has complied with such requests to remove them or to block access in Malaysia.
Google Malaysia has in fact been very cooperative – as long as there was a genuine case. Indeed, when DNA approached Google Malaysia for a response, we were referred to the MCMC.
Fifth, Zahid really doesn’t have to worry. YouTube in fact has very strict policies on what kind of material can be uploaded to the site. I suggest he read up on those policies, and use due process to get the company to remove any objectionable material that appears on the video-sharing site.
YouTube in fact prohibits content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, and it removes videos violating these policies when flagged by users. This includes content deemed illegal in countries where it is localised, such as Malaysia.
Unless of course Zahid believes that freedom of expression and speech isn’t part of Malaysian culture, which would make it the sixth misconception he has. Such freedom isn’t only part of our culture, it is enshrined in our Constitution.
Seventh, he seems to think this will work. Speaking to people infinitely smarter and more tech-savvy than me – the vehemence of their response brought to mind the three-letter acronym I alluded to above – brought up the usual issue when it comes to blocking the Internet: The Internet will always find a way.
The Malaysian Government, about five years ago, actually tried to develop an Internet filtering system akin to China’s infamous and aborted ‘Green Dam’ project. Such efforts have not got anywhere because … well, Internet.
Eighth, I am not entirely sure Zahid means firewall when he says ‘firewall.’ One smart friend I spoke to noted that the most widely used Internet-filtering method is IP (Internet Protocol) ​address ​blocking at the Internet service provider (ISP) level.
China does this manually because it’s got the human resources to do so, while Pakistan just ‘broad blocks’ IP addresses – which often results in other services being affected as well (webmail, apps, etc.). You can imagine how this affects user experience.
If this is what the minister meant, then that’s the ninth wrong thing he has said before breakfast. Anyone could have told him that virtual private network (VPN) services can bypass most such obstacles quite easily.
Of course, the minister could have meant censoring YouTube videos based on their URL links, which can also be done at the ISP level, but this works only as long users don't upload copies of the same content and then don't list or tag it, my techie friend noted.
“Just keep in mind that 100 hours of YouTube content gets uploaded every single minute of every single day, which makes proactive censorship a daunting, if not downright impossible, challenge,” he said.
Finally (that’s No 10), if Zahid thought he was gaining brownie points with his boss, I’d instead venture that the first thing Prime Minister Najib Razak did was to slap his forehead or look heavenward with a woeful ‘Why me?’ expression.
After all, it was the Najib Administration that launched the Digital Malaysia programme in 2012, aiming to transform the nation into a fully developed ‘digital economy’ by 2020, by getting Malaysians to fully harness digital technologies. To become producers, not merely consumers. To use such technologies to enable and empower themselves.
And now, not for the first time in his premiership, one of his own ministers is blatantly trying to scuttle a Najib initiative.
Related Stories:
Internet censorship: You’ve already won, Dr Mahathir
Internet censorship: What you allow is what will continue
The kangkung block: Denial seems to be the best defence
Censorship 2.0: Shadowy forces controlling online conversations
The mystery of the Malaysian Govt and its rejection by Facebook
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