Malaysia is looking to follow China and Australia by publicly introducing Internet filtering.  Singapore has been doing it so furtively for years as many residents which have received popup warnings from the Media Development Authority will confirm.  This growing trend to protect innocent citizens from the ravages of undesirable content has Orwellian overtones and smacks of a return to an era of Victorian conservatism.

There is no doubt that trying to stop the spread of hard core pornography, especially where children are involved, is an admirable goal but as we have seen throughout history, any type of censorship is usually the portend of much more sinister doings.

Malaysia’s main opposition party believes any form of Internet filtering, if allowed, would stifle dissent.  They claim that the announcement of the proposal, within days of police arresting almost 600 opposition members at a weekend rally denouncing the government, was no coincidence.  They are comparing it to China’s controversial ‘Green Dam’ project, a filter to stamp out Internet pornography, that has drawn criticism from the USA and the computer industry.  ‘Green Dam’ critics say the software was technically flawed and could have been used to spy on Internet users and to block sites that Beijing considers politically undesirable.

The Malaysian government has for years promoted the use of the Internet amongst its citizens and is aiming to double household broadband penetration to 50 percent by the end of next year. It has contributed to the development of a vibrant Internet culture but this has also contributed to political challenges facing the government.  In last years election the opposition achieved its best ever election results, depriving the government of its two-thirds parliamentary majority. A result many claim was achieved with the help of Internet blogging and instant messaging. However, the government still tightly controls mainstream media and has, in the recent past, used sedition laws and imprisonment without trial to prosecute a leading blogger.

It is reported that the government has already released a tender and that four companies have responded. New Information, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yatim, whose ministry issued the tender, also plans to secure direct control over the content and monitoring division of Malaysia’s Internet regulator. There was also some talk previously of filtering SMS traffic for religious content but this not part of this tender.

Companies like Microsoft and Cisco Systems invested in Malaysia’s ‘Multimedia Super Corridor’ in the 1990s buoyed by incentives and promises that the Internet would not be censored. That investment, currently worth 1.6 billion ringgit (US$458 million) a year, could be reviewed if restrictions are imposed.

It seems that the adverse publicity and concerns by international investors that the government stance may be softening already.  Last Friday, Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted as saying, “The government has no desire to implement Internet filtering.” Najib said the Internet restrictions were ‘not effective’ and contradicted the earlier statement from Information Minister Rais Yatim who had said that there were plans in place to stop pornography from circulating on the Internet.

There appears to be a contradiction in Malaysia that may be a signal for the rest of the world. It is very difficult to take away something from people once they have gotten used to it. The Internet, whether accessed by computer or mobiles is growing and uninhibited access to it is exposing people to broader thinking. Any form of censorship, whether warranted or not, is being seen as an infringement of civil liberties by the citizens and a negative sign for foreign investors.  It will be interesting to see if China, Malaysia and Australia ever manage to introduce internet censorship, at least publicly.