Harris Zainul was quoted by the South China Morning Post, 5 July 2023

  • Social media giant Meta is set to help Malaysian police combat online crime and remove controversial posts touching on race, religion and royalty
  • Online gambling was another major concern, said Malaysia’s communications ministry, which had earlier appeared to threaten Meta with legal action

by Hadi Azmi

Facebook parent company Meta has agreed to work with police in Malaysia to tackle online scams and remove “undesirable content” from its platforms, the Communications and Digital Ministry said – after threatening the tech giant, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, with legal action.

In a statement issued late on Tuesday, communications minister Fahmi Fadzil said Meta representatives had joined a meeting at police headquarters and pledged to work with enforcement agencies to combat rampant online crime and posts contravening the “3Rs” – racereligion and royalty.

“I believe with this cooperation, crimes like scams, online gambling and ‘3R’ issues on Meta’s platform can be curtailed,” the minister said in the statement, posted on Facebook.

The apparent agreement followed a legal threat by the ministry’s enforcement arm, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, which accused the Silicon Valley outfit of a “sluggish and unsatisfactory” response to comply with its request to remove content deemed to have crossed the “3R” red lines – singling Facebook out in particular for being “plagued by a significant volume of undesirable content” in a statement last month.

Meta did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

The move comes as Malaysia contends with a surge in online crime including scams and gambling, but also as the government of Anwar Ibrahim shows signs of becoming increasingly thin-skinned to criticism and restrictive of free speech, despite hopes his administration would herald a more open era of expression.

Since coming to power in November, Anwar’s administration has pledged to tackle what it calls provocative posts that touch on race and religion, following a close-fought election that was accompanied by a rise in ethnic tensions.

At Tuesday’s meeting was Malaysia’s chief of police Razarudin Husain, communications commission head Salim Fateh Din and CEO of CyberSecurity Malaysia Amiruddin Abdul Wahab. Meta was represented by Daniel Lim, its public policy lead and manager for Malaysia and Singapore, among others.

Fahmi, the communications minister, on Monday told reporters that the threat of legal action against Meta would only be a last resort if the social media giant refused to engage with the Malaysian government.

“They were not engaging for a while, and then thankfully, we’re going to meet them,” the minister said at his office on Monday.

He said one of the government’s key concerns was the proliferation of online gambling on Meta’s platforms, as well as scams orchestrated by fake accounts impersonating prominent figures.

Victims of impersonation include Muhamad Umar Swift, chief executive of the Bursa Malaysia stock exchange, who complained that multiple fake accounts had appeared giving his apparent endorsement to investment opportunities.

There is ample room for the government to further flesh out exactly what it is that is undesirable

Harris Zainul, Malaysia’s Institute Of Strategic and International Studies

Prominent economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram has similarly been impersonated by fake social-media accounts purporting to provide financial advice.

“Please be clear: I will never make any financial advice, stock news, or anything related to making money; I am an economist, not a financier,” Jomo said last Tuesday on his actual Facebook account.

Minister Fahmi said the government was actively tackling such crimes, but wanted to get to the “root cause” of the problem instead of trying to take down offending one by one, once they have already done the rounds.

Using movie piracy as an example, Fahmi said he was hoping for a more comprehensive way of using artificial intelligence to scan content posted on Meta’s platforms instead of taking it down after the fact.

“Filmmakers don’t have to furnish a list but rather [Meta] can immediately automatically scan and stop it from operating on their platforms,” he said.

Asked if Malaysia would go as far as blocking Meta’s popular Facebook platform, Fahmi said that the government’s concerns were “not a personal problem”.

“[Our concern] is based on police reports that were shared with us … the problems that a number of other organisations have raised with us,” the minister said.

Harris Zainul, deputy director of research at Malaysia’s Institute Of Strategic and International Studies, said the development could serve to limit the room for abuse online and should be seen in a positive light given the rise of digital hate speech.

“‘3R speech’ covering race, religion and royalty is quite broad and there is ample room for the government to further flesh out exactly what it is that is undesirable,” he told This Week in Asia.

“This should limit the potential room available for abuse and assuage concerns regarding censorship.”

This article was first appeared on the South China Morning Post, 5 July 2023

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