By SHIBANI MAHTANI | August 14, 2012, 11:50 a.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took to microblogging site Twitter on Tuesday to say that he will ask his government to reassess a new law that critics say could restrict online freedoms.
Throughout the day, Malaysians surfing popular blogs and some political websites were greeted by pop-up banners and blacked-out pages prepared as part of a concerted campaign against section 114A, a controversial amendment to the country’s Evidence Act. The law holds owners of Wi-Fi connections or editors of blogs or forums legally accountable for any seditious or defamatory material spread through their accounts or websites.
A series of prominent websites, including those of the Malaysian Bar Council, the opposition Democratic Action Party, and news portals Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today and BFM Radio, were either blacked out voluntarily or featured a pop-up message: Stop 114A.
In the early evening, Mr. Najib responded on his personal Twitter account, saying “I have asked Cabinet to discuss section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950. Whatever we do we must put people first.”
Activists say the new law, enacted this year, is vague and could unfairly punish average Internet users. Critics say it makes too many individuals liable for seditious content, including business owners who provide Wi-Fi access. The law also assumes guilt “unless the contrary is proven,” which activists say unfairly burdens ordinary Internet users who may be unable to defend themselves in court.
Tuesday’s campaign, which was scheduled to end at midnight, echoed similar protests in the U.S. against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. That proposed law was opposed by online giants including Google Inc., GOOG +1.31% Wikipedia and Mozilla, some of whom blacked out their websites for 24 hours in January.
“With individual postings, you always have to be responsible, that is fair. But for the first time, an intermediary can also be responsible [for defamatory or seditious postings],” said Masjaliza Hamzah, executive director of Malaysia’s Center for Independent Journalism, one of the first petitioners against the amendment. “That is the most glaring of the injustices with regard to this law.”
A spokesman for the Malaysian government said the amendment to the Evidence Act “aims to protect victims of Internet-based attacks such as cyberbullying” and “allows Internet-based crimes to be more easily traced, so that people cannot perpetrate attacks on individuals under the cloak of anonymity.”
“However, in light of some public concern, the Prime Minister has asked the cabinet to discuss the amendment to ensure that the interests of all Malaysians are put first,” the spokesman said.
The law, which was debated in Parliament this year and took effect July 31, has also been opposed by some voices within Mr. Najib’s ruling National Front coalition, including Member of Parliament Khairy Jamaluddin, also chief of main United Malays National Organization party’s youth wing, and Deputy Minister of Higher Education Saifuddin Abdullah. Both have called for the amendment to be repealed or reworked. When the law was being debated, members of parliament from both the opposition and the ruling coalition voted for it to be passed.
Some observers said that besides civil liberties and online freedoms, the amendment to the Evidence Act could also have a significant impact on Malaysia’s small business community, particularly tech start-ups that rely heavily on social media and increased dialog to flourish in a competitive market.”This is bad for the start-up community,” said Colin Charles, a tech entrepreneur involved in open source software. “The old philosophy was that you were just a carrier [of negative comments], but now you have to prove otherwise. Every news portal has comments, and every start-up website wants to engage with users—it is almost impossible to keep track of all the conversation.”
Mr. Charles said the new laws would be particularly harmful to small business owners and entrepreneurs, many of whom would find themselves financially stretched when engaging a legal team.
A Facebook campaign page against the new law has received more than 42,000 ‘likes’ since Monday, with more than 60 websites choosing to black out their pages or include pop-ups Tuesday warning people against the amendment. Activists said their ultimate objective is to get the government to withdraw the amendment, and indicated they will step up campaign efforts in coming weeks.