(Originally published Aug 30, 2013)
This article, No 6 of our most-read stories of 2013, really showed how far behind Malaysia is in terms of transparency and governance. Facebook had released a report on requests for user data made by governments all over the world, and Malaysia had the dubious honour of having none of its requests granted. At best, it illustrates incompetence; at worst, possible abuses of power.
The statements from a minister and a government agency didn’t help either, showing that neither understood or even cared what the issue was about. All you need to do is arm yourself with some sound-bites, apparently, and the issue will not be addressed. Malaysia a developed nation by the year 2020? I think not. – A. Asohan
Malaysian Govt made seven requests for info, covering 197 user accounts – all were rejected by Facebook
Neither ministry nor MCMC seems to know which agencies made these requests, and for what reasons
THERE must be a lot of head-scratching going on in Malaysia this week, especially in government and quasi-government circles, as people try to figure out who did what, and why.
Out of the blue, Facebook followed the example of other companies such as Google and its Transparency Report, and released the Global Government Requests Report, covering the first six months of this year.
The report details which countries requested information from Facebook about its users; the number of requests; the number of users or user accounts specified in those requests; and the percentage of these requests the social network company granted.
The Malaysian Government has the dubious honour of shooting blanks, with none of its requests – seven in the last six months, covering 197 user accounts – having been granted. Singapore, by contrast, had 70% of its 107 requests granted.
On the face of it, it would seem the Singapore Government knows more about its own laws than the Malaysian Government does about ours.
Worse, nobody in government seems to know what’s going on here. When responding to a query from online news portal The Malaysian Insider, Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek said that Putrajaya will appeal to Facebook.
However, obviously not having been briefed by his team on what the issue was really about, he said that requests to Facebook did not only come from governments around the world but from individuals who have a problem with the social networking site.
Except, you know, Mr Minister, since we’re talking about the Global GOVERNMENT Requests Report, we’re talking specifically about requests from governments, not individuals or companies. These are requests made from governments seeking account information for use in official investigations, whether they are cases involving crime (robberies or kidnappings, for instance) or those related to national security.
“Facebook receives hundreds of millions of complaints per day so they definitely choose which complaint to look at,” the minister added.
Again, no. This is about official government requests, including those from law enforcement agencies.
“We scrutinise each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request,” Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said in introducing the report.
“We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name,” he added.
A Facebook spokeswoman told Digital News Asia (DNA) that the company has strict guidelines in place to deal with all government data requests, detailed here. Unfortunately, she could not share further information on which Malaysian government agencies requested the data, and the specific reasons why all these requests were refused.
Industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which you would expect to be behind most of these requests, did not respond to official DNA queries.
However, when DNA founder Karamjit Singh asked MCMC chairman Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi about the issue at a function on Aug 29, the latter declined to say how many of the requests came from his agency.
“We are not the only agency to make such requests from Facebook, Google or YouTube, so you cannot say all the requests were from us,” he said. “I need to check what were the circumstances under which the requests were made to Facebook. We log what we request for.”
“We have close cooperation with them [the above companies]. It all depends on the laws you invoke when you make requests for account information.
“Sometimes, there will be disagreements over whether the law you invoke with your request allows for the information to be released, but we are usually able to resolve it,” he added. “I cannot speak for the other agencies though.”
But then he also said that it could have been that the accounts “were fake. You cannot review them because they were fake accounts.”
Again, no. A fake account still has information, and if the Government’s requests had been granted, then it would have been recorded in the company’s report as having been granted. Even partial information is recorded – it may not help you identify the culprit, but Facebook would not record it as the company having refused the request.
Finally, this has nothing to do with user complaints for content that breaches Facebook’s community standards. For example, the company removed an article from former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s (pic courtesy of The Malaysian Insider) Facebook page, The Malay Mail Online reported on Aug 1.
The news portal believes it was because the article, The Chinese Dilemma, promoted hate speech which “includes attacks on people based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease.”
So let’s step back and look at what has happened here. Parties unknown in the Malaysian Government have made requests for Facebook user data. The social network company has rejected these requests – either because these persons unknown could not cite a relevant law as having been broken, or could not prove to Facebook that a crime has been committed.
It could be mere incompetence, or a lack of knowledge of how technology and the Internet world operate, but it all smells of abuse of power, if you ask me.
Neither the MCMC nor its governing ministry seem to know what’s going on. To be fair, the report was released on Aug 28, so neither party may have had the time to check out Facebook’s preamble, report and FAQ.
Hopefully they will do so now, and begin an inquiry to determine if these requests, from unknown parties in the Malaysian Government, were for legitimate, legal reasons, and not cases of ‘Little Napoleons’ flexing their muscles in an attempt to intimidate certain Malaysians who are online.
As Facebook’s Stretch says, “we believe that while governments have an important responsibility to keep people safe, it is possible to do so while also being transparent.
“Government transparency and public safety are not mutually exclusive ideals. Each can exist simultaneously in free and open societies, and they help make us stronger. We strongly encourage all governments to provide greater transparency about their efforts aimed at keeping the public safe, and we will continue to be aggressive advocates for greater disclosure,” he adds.
The Malaysian people deserve to know.
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