This is the printable version of an article from Infernal Ramblings (infernalramblings.com). The original web-optimised article is also available.

Registering and Censoring Bloggers?

The recent proposal by a Deputy Minister in Parliament to register Malaysian bloggers is so ludicrous, it's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. Restricting the proper exercise of freedom of speech on the internet is not only a futile exercise, it's a silly one.

Written by johnleemk on 11:02:37 am Apr 5, 2007.

The ludicrous Malaysian government strikes again, this time with a proposal to register Malaysian bloggers, purportedly for the sake of national security. This time, the moron is Deputy Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor, who has mooted the idea in Parliament.

Fortunately, I will be exempt from his proposal, which states that only "locally hosted websites" will be subject to registration. This massive loophole in itself shows how ridiculous and ineffective this idea is. How many bloggers host their websites locally in the first place? And how many will if this proposal is implemented?

Moving your website to a foreign server is really simple. The worst that could happen is that Malaysians might take an extra second or two longer to access the website, but aside from that, there's no material difference. If this regulation were to be enacted, there would be a real difference — no need to register yourself with the government.

There are only two imaginable reasons for the government coming up with such a stupid idea. Either the government is seeking to take a symbolic but essentially meaningless action to make it seem like it's doing something about bloggers, or it's profoundly ignorant of the realities of the internet.

I'm leaning in favour of the latter explanation. The only people who seem to care about bloggers are those in the government itself, so there's no reason for them to take a meaningless action. This can only mean that they want to take what they think is a meaningful step, but they are so clueless about the internet that they don't know how easy it is to relocate websites overseas.

Even if the government was serious, it couldn't really enforce this registration law. How is it going to go to the trouble of identifying locally-hosted websites, and then tracking down their authors? They would have to selectively enforce the law, because it's simply impractical to hunt down every locally-hosted blog.

The Deputy Minister said something about websites with the .my top-level domain suffix, but this is no indicator of hosting status. There are .com sites hosted in Malaysia, and .com.my sites hosted overseas. The domain name does not indicate the location of the webhost. The government will have to first determine what blogs are written by Malaysians, and then painfully sift through them to find the few that are actually hosted in Malaysia.

If this policy goes into practice at all, I imagine what will happen is that the government will just look into those blogs that they don't like, and see if they are hosted locally. If they are, then they will crack down on them through this registration procedure. Only selective enforcement of the law would be practical, which I guess suits a government that favours the rule of convenience over the rule of law.

Anyhow, this proposal to begin regulating the internet is worrying. The government has given its promise to protect freedom of speech in cyberspace. This seems to clash directly with the Deputy Minister's recent proposal.

In the first place, regulating cyberspace is quite difficult. The vagaries of the internet don't lend themselves well to enforcement of criminal law, resulting often in selective enforcement. Cyberspace seems better suited for civil law, where those harmed by a specific website can sue its authors.

The existing defamation laws already apply to the internet. There doesn't seem to be a good reason to criminalise the act of exercising freedom of speech on the internet. If anyone is spreading lies about the government, the aggrieved party or parties can always sue for libel. And if someone is actively seeking to subvert the country, surely there are criminal laws against plotting an overthrow of the rule of law. Where's the need for further criminal laws?

This proposal to register bloggers reeks of idiocy and clearly hasn't been thought out well. If it is implemented at all, it will probably go down in the history books as another one of those poorly dreamed up ideas to curtail the proper exercise of free speech. And, of course, also as an entry in the Malaysia Book of Records for most silly and unimplementable idea. (Though I suspect there's a lot of competition in this category.)