Harris Zainul was quoted by the Malaymail, 25 June 2023

by Keertan Ayamany and Zarrah Morden

KUALA LUMPUR, June 25 — The government should sit down with social media platforms to agree on what counts as improper content in Malaysia, several mis/disinformation and free speech experts said after Putrajaya threatened legal action against Meta Platforms Inc.

The observers told Malay Mail that both Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and Meta — which is the parent company for Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram — seemingly have different definitions of what counts as harmful online.

“Meta should be more sensitive towards our sociocultural leanings, especially if the content removal requests are on legitimately sensitive topics,” said Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia deputy director of research Harris Zainul.

“If Meta is of a different opinion and believes that the content should remain on their platform, then the onus is on them to be transparent in its decision making.

Harris said there is a need to regulate social media platforms to ensure better alignment between both parties, and a proposed framework which began late last year has yet to come to fruition.

He pointed to how issues related to race, royalty and religion — dubbed “3R” in the country — are an “obvious redline” to Malaysian authorities, adding that there is little tolerance here for misinformation and disinformation on such topics.

Additionally, he said that he was shocked to hear of MCMC suing Meta as such an incident suggests that the relationship between both parties is breaking down.

Similarly, academic Sabariah Mohamed Salleh who is part of the local fact-checking network JomCheck said while legal action can be an option to regulate hate speech and disinformation on the “3R”, both Putrajaya and Malaysia may not actually be on the same page now.

“I cannot help but wonder if we are on the same page in defining and understanding what constitutes hate speech and sensitive issues which has the potential to create unrest,” she said, referring to the two parties.

The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia head of the media research cluster explained that Malaysia’s situation is unique, as race and religion are deemed significant issues in our daily life.

She attributed the clash to Meta’s lack of understanding of the sensitivities in Malaysian society, saying that there was likely a gap in comprehension.

“Things that are problematic for us may be something that is minute to them,” the associate professor concluded.

She then suggested the establishment of a Parliamentary select committee to study the issue from all angles, which will hopefully broadcast to Malaysians how seriously the government is taking the matter.

On the other hand, Nalini Elumalai from free speech watchdog Article 19 said while her organisation is aware that hate speech can result in real harm, restrictions must be provided for by the law in pursuit of a legitimate aim and should be necessary and proportionate.

In reaction to the news of MCMC’s intent for legal action, Article 19 had released a statement condemning the move saying that it threatens the freedom of online expression.

“This will have a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression, especially as victims of this censorship would be left without recourse to challenge or seek redress for the arbitrary removal of critical perspectives.

“It also puts undue pressure on Facebook, as an intermediary, to suddenly bear legal responsibility for third-party content. This would be a concerning decline of internet freedom, all the more so if the authorities attempt to hide their arbitrariness behind the cover of law,” Nalini said in the statement.

She also called for MCMC to withdraw the possibility of it taking legal action against Meta, saying that it should instead continue to engage Meta and civil societies.

On Friday, MCMC said it would take action against Meta, the parent company of social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, for its non-cooperation and failure to address harmful content there.

It said it had reached out to Meta to remove “a significant volume of undesirable content” relating to race, royalty, and religion (3R), defamation, impersonation, online gambling, and scam advertisements that it said has plagued Facebook recently, but to no avail.

The lack of cooperation has left it no choice but to take “definitive steps or legal action” against Meta to make sure the public is protected and secure in the digital space, it added.

Right after he took office last year, Minister of Communications and Digital Fahmi Fadzil said that tackling online scams ranked number one on his list of things to do after being appointed minister, followed by data protection, and misinformation and disinformation on social media.

This article was first appeared on the Malaymail, 25 June 2023

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