Mobile-phone use has also increased significantly in recent years. By the end of 2010, the number of subscribers—33.1 million—exceeded the country’s total population, meaning some individuals had multiple phone lines.6 By comparison, mobile-phone penetration was just 21.8 percent in 2000.7 Given the high overall penetration rate, there is less of an urban-rural divide in mobile-phone use than in internet connectivity.8 With four active third-generation (3G) service providers, access to 3G mobile technology is expanding, and the number of subscribers reached 8.6 million by the end of 2010.9 Faster broadband access and the increasing availability of 3G service have allowed a growing number of Malaysian citizens to circulate information via advanced web applications like the videosharing website YouTube, the social-networking site Facebook, and the microblogging application Twitter. All such applications are freely accessible. In August 2010, however, a politician from the ruling coalition voiced calls for Facebook to be blocked after a user Economist Intelligence Unit, “Malaysia Internet: Sub-sector Update,” December 20, 2010, http://www.eiu.com/index.asplayout=ib3Article&article_id=197731004&country_id=1600000160&pubtypeid=1&industry_id=&category_id=&rf=0.
“Internet Reaches One in Five in Malaysia,” Asia Media Journal, October 23, 2008, http://www.asiamediajournal.com/pressrelease.phpid=610.
Digital Media Across Asia, “Malaysia Internet Penetration: Malaysian Internet Users in Urban/Rural Area,” http://comm215.wetpaint.com/page/Malaysia+Internet+Penetration, accessed August 20, 2010.
Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), Communications and Multimedia: Selected Facts and Figures, Q2010 (Cyberjaya: MCMC, 2010), http://www.skmm.gov.my/link_file/facts_figures/stats/pdf/Q4%202010%20Text.pdf, accessed February 28, 2011.
8 MCMC, Communications and Multimedia: Selected Facts and Figures, Q1 2008 (Cyberjaya: MCMC, 2008), http://www.skmm.gov.my/link_file/facts_figures/stats/pdf/Q1.pdf.
MCMC, Communications and Multimedia: Selected Facts and Figures, Q4 2010.
MALAYSIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net posted comments perceived as insulting to the prime minister and Islam.The lack of high-quality infrastructure in many parts of the country remains the primary obstacle to improved connectivity.11 In response, the Malaysian government has prioritized the development of broadband internet infrastructure. Broadband usage has increased dramatically since 2007, with household penetration reaching 31.7 percent by the end of 2009. Nevertheless, the infrastructure remains insufficient to meet growing demand.12 In March 2010, the government launched a National Broadband Initiative, which introduced five programs to expedite expansion of broadband internet and mobile-phone coverage. In some cases, the programs were carried out in cooperation with formerly stateowned Telekom Malaysia, the country’s largest telecommunications company, which retains a monopoly over the fixed-line network.13 In addition to these initiatives, the introduction of wireless WiMAX technology since 2008 has enabled provision of broadband services to areas of the country that are difficult to reach via cable connections; four WiMAX providers were in operation as of mid-2010.
Regulation of the internet falls under the immediate purview of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which is overseen by the minister of information, communications, and culture. Both the MCMC and the ministry are guided by the 1998 Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA), which gives the information minister a wide range of licensing and other powers. MCMC commissioners are appointed by the government. Since the end of 2008, the process for appointing members of the MCMC advisory board has become more transparent and participatory, involving consultations with a wide range of stakeholders and resulting in the inclusion of civil society members on the board. The board’s powers are extremely limited, however, and the MCMC has emerged as one of the country’s greatest obstacles to free expression and a driving force in efforts to censor online speech.
Under the CMA, a license is required to own and operate a network facility. There are 21 ISPs operating in the country, most of them privately owned. There have not been any reported denials of ISP license applications, but the licensing process could serve as a means of control, and the owners of major ISPs and mobile-phone service providers often have connections to the government. Of the two largest ISPs, TMnet and Jaring, the former is a subsidiary of the privatized national phone company Telekom Malaysia, and the latter is wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance. Maxis Communications, the largest mobile-phone service provider, was founded by Ananda Krishnan, who also owns the largest satellite “Shahidan Wants Facebook Banned, Cites National Security,” Malaysian Insider, December 6, 2010, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/shahidan-wants-facebook-banned-cites-national-security/.
“Your 10 Questions for Dr. Mohamed Awang Lah,” Star Online, May 22, 2010, http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.aspfile=/2010/5/22/business/6298179&sec=business.
MCMC, “Broadband Meter: Subscribers and Users,”.MyConvergence, March 2010, http://myconvergence.com.my/main/images/stories/SpecialEdition/pdf/MyConBumper_p97_BBMeter.pdf.
Sira Habu and Shaun Ho, “RM 1 Billion Initiative to Promote High-Speed Broadband Usage,” Star Online, March 25, 2010, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.aspfile=/2010/3/25/nation/5931577&sec=nation.
MALAYSIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net broadcaster and enjoys close ties to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Two new mobile-phone providers have joined the market since 2008: YTL Communications and Umobile, both of whose owners are closely associated with the ruling party. Since 2007, some local governments, such as those in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, have sporadically frozen cybercafe licenses or closed venues operating without licenses in an effort to limit illegal activities like online gambling.14 While it is not part of a deliberate government effort to restrict public access to the internet, the closure of hundreds of cybercafes in this crackdown has hampered access for the general population in some regions of the country.LIMITS ON CONTENT The government does not employ any known filtering technology to actively censor internet content, though the authorities have taken other measures to restrict the circulation of certain information. There are no laws aimed at limiting or censoring the internet in particular, and a provision of the CMA explicitly states that nothing in the act “shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet.” The Bill of Guarantees of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), an information-technology development project, also promises no censorship of the internet. The government has generally upheld its pledges to avoid direct censorship, except in the case of an MCMC decision to block the controversial website Malaysia Today for two weeks in August 2008.16 The site, founded by popular blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, has been very critical of the ruling party, but was unblocked following a public outcry.In August 2009, news emerged that the Information Minister Rais Yatim had directed the MCMC to issue a tender for a nationwide internet filtering system. Following objections from the public and free speech advocates, the plan was put on hold, though it remains unclear whether it has been permanently abandoned.18 Meanwhile, many government-linked companies and public universities restrict access for their students and employees to certain sensitive websites, such as the independent online news outlet Malaysiakini.
Although there were no reported instances of technical blocking, there have been cases of administrative efforts to remove content from the internet. The energy, water, and communications minister—then responsible for the MCMC before an April 2009 cabinet Bavani M and Komala Devi, “Illegal Internet Cafs Biting into Business of Legitimate Cybercafs,” Star Online, May 21, 2010, http://thestar.com.my/metro/story.aspfile=/2010/5/21/central/6304101&sec=central.
“Syed Hamid Tells Why Malaysia Today was Blocked,” Star Online, August 29, 2008, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.aspfile=/2008/8/29/nation/22194389&sec=nation.
Sim Leoi Leoi and Florence A. Samy, “MCMC Told to Unblock Malaysia Today (Update 2),” Star Online, September 11, 2008, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.aspsec=nation&file=/2008/9/11/nation/20080911145128.
Rebekah Heacock, “Malaysia Considers, Backs Down From National Internet Filter,” OpenNet Initiative Blog, August 13, 2009, http://opennet.net/blog/2009/08/malaysia-considers-backs-down-national-internet-filter.
MALAYSIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net reorganization—reportedly said in September 2008 that the commission had formed a panel composed of the police, officials from the attorney general’s office, and representatives of the Home Ministry to monitor websites and blogs. While there is no comprehensive information available, this mechanism appears to be active, as the MCMC has been known to track online discussions and then instruct bloggers or online news outlets to remove articles or comments that are perceived as antiestablishment or overly critical of the government. Procedures surrounding such requests are generally nontransparent. In one case that received widespread attention, the MCMC in September 2009 directed Malaysiakini to take down two videos from its website. The commission argued that the videos were “provocative” and ordered their removal under the CMA. The first video showed Muslim demonstrators marching with a cow’s head to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple, and the second showed the home minister defending the protesters.
Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, refused to comply with the order, stating that his outlet had no ill intentions in posting the videos. Following an investigation that lasted several days and involved the interrogation of multiple staff members, the MCMC forwarded the case to the attorney general, urging that Malaysiakini be prosecuted for failing to comply with the removal order. Should the attorney general pursue the case, Malaysiakini faces a potential fine of up to 50,000 ringgits (US$14,300), and Gan could receive up to a year in prison.The level of self-censorship appears to have remained consistent in 2009 and 2010 as compared to previous years. Although the repeated prosecution of bloggers has caused some online writers to exercise greater caution, critical commentary and exposs of official misconduct have a regular presence in online discourse. The authorities discourage free expression on sensitive or “red-line” issues such as Islam’s official status, race, royalty, and the special rights enjoyed by bumiputera (ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, as opposed to the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities).
Expanded internet access has led to the emergence of a vibrant blogosphere, and an increasing number of Malaysians are turning to the internet as their main source of news. In a survey of the 50 most-viewed websites, Malaysiakini ranked 13th.20 Despite such popularity, the site has reportedly encountered difficulties securing advertisements, as businesses fear reprisals given the site’s reputation for independent journalism and criticism of the government. The use of social-networking platforms has also become a primary online activity for many individuals. There are almost six million Facebook users in Malaysia, and the country is ranked fourth in the Asia-Pacific region for number of social-networking media users.21 It was also estimated that there were almost 500,000 Twitter users and two Reporters Without Borders, “Malaysiakini Website Refuses to Bow to Censorship,” news release, September 24, 2009, http://en.rsf.org/malaysia-malaysiakini-website-refuses-to-24-09-2009,34575.
Alexa, “Top Sites in Malaysia,” http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries;0/MY, accessed February 23, 2011.
Harmandar Singh, “The Game of Demystifying Social Media,” Star Online, May 29, 2010, http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.aspfile=/2010/5/29/business/6338710&sec=business.
MALAYSIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net million bloggers as of mid-2010 in Malaysia.22 Almost all prominent politicians and civil society groups, including those representing ethnic minorities, blog or tweet regularly, and many also have a presence on Facebook, including Prime Minister Najib Razak.23 English, and to a lesser extent Malay, are the dominant blogging languages.
Some bloggers have exposed corruption in the government or initiated online campaigns to challenge government policies or improve transparency. Penang Watch, launched in 2007, receives and tracks citizens’ complaints to the local government in the northern state of Penang in an effort to increase official accountability. In recent years, nearly half of the complaints posted to the site have reportedly been successfully resolved by the local authorities.24 In October 2010, after the Home Ministry banned a newly released book on Malaysia’s leaders, a decision condemned by human rights groups, an alternative copy was circulated online.25A loose coalition of bloggers has formed in an effort to selfregulate and advocate against restrictions on free expression. Although they have held annual meetings to discuss ongoing political developments in Malaysia,26 they have been relatively ineffective due to a lack of formal organization and mechanisms for punishing offending bloggers other than expulsion from the coalition.VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS Malaysia’s constitution provides each citizen with “the right to freedom of speech and expression,” but allows for limitations on this right. The government exercises tight control over print and broadcast media through restrictions on licensing and the use of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the Sedition Act, and harsh criminal defamation laws to penalize journalists and other critics. Violations of these laws are punishable by several years in prison.