Civil Society Groups Troubled by Increasing Violations Online

The increasing rights violations online, especially in South East Asia, were the major concern of the civil society delegates during the recent 2012 Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) in Tokyo, Japan. The issue of strict Internet governance in the region was raised by the participants of the forum, as they believe that “the space for free expression on the Internet is shrinking”. Censorship has been widely used by governments in South East Asia to suppress Internet freedom. They also introduced new laws regarding Internet governance as part of their fear mongering tactics. Bloggers, online journalists as well as ordinary social media users become the targets of attacks, arrest, and threats by state authorities.

For instance, in Malaysia, the new amendment to the Evidence Act is clearly an infringement on Internet freedom and freedom of expression. It is problematic since it presumes guilt rather than innocence, which contradicts the basis of many justice systems; makes Internet intermediaries–parties that provide online community forums, blogging and hosting services–liable for content that is published through their services; allows hackers and cyber criminals to be free by making the person whose account or computer is hacked liable for any content which might have changed; and reduces opportunities to be anonymous online, which is crucial in promoting a free and open Internet.

The growing number of laws introduced in the region that have a chilling effect on Internet freedom greatly concerns members of civil society. Although the delegates in the forum recognize the need to address cybercrime and legitimate national security threats, they are worried that “laws seek to extend media censorship and criminal defamation to the internet, and are also being used to criminalize individuals or organizations expressing or sharing legitimate social or political critique”. As part of the resolution, the delegates demand that “law-enforcement agencies and justice systems must presume innocence until defendants are proven guilty, regardless of whether or not defamation is criminal”. This statement is a direct blow to the new Section 114A introduced by the Malaysian government, which presumes guilt rather than innocence. They also stress that introduction of new laws or legislative amendments, particularly those that could potentially impact human rights, must involve extensive, inclusive and meaningful public consultations.

The new amendment to the Evidence Act needs to be withdrawn as it is a direct violation of Internet freedom and human rights. It is believed that the law is intended to harm or scare the online community especially the political dissenters who use the Internet as a platform to criticize the ruling parties. The delegates to the 2012 Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum made it clear that “restriction to freedom of expression on the Internet must not risk citizens’ rights to hold opinions without interference and to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as stipulated in Article 18 of the ICCPR, and it must not be subject to lawful derogation as outlined in UN General Comment No. 34”. It is time for the government to consult the civil society and the people in their policymaking.