Malaysia reviews controversial Internet law following online protest

Critics allege the law could be used to prosecute people who didn't actually make defamatory comments

Malaysia will review a controversial Internet law following a day-long blackout of prominent websites over concern it could be used to silence government critics.

Prime Minister Najib Razak wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night that he has asked his cabinet to discuss section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950. "Whatever we do, we must put people first," he wrote.

An amendment to the act that took effect July 31 makes service providers such as ISPs and publishers liable for defamatory content. Users accused of violating the act must prove to the government they were not responsible for the comments, a shift in the burden of proof, said James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur.

The amendment is believed to be aimed at opposition media and social networking sites ahead of a general election that is expected to be called soon. Malaysia's government, similar to Singapore's, tightly controls print and broadcast outlets, which had resulted in opposition websites outnumbering government ones three to one, Chin said.

"The opposition has no choice but to move to cyberspace to get their message out," Chin said.

On Tuesday, a number of websites participated in a "blackout," displaying information about the alleged harms of the law instead of their normal content. The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia said on Twitter that more than 70 websites participated, including news sites Malaysiakini and Digital News Asia.

CIJ has been a prominent opponent of the amendment, pointing out that hackers could impersonate others to post material intended to draw the attention of law enforcement. The group contends there are already four other laws that can be used to prosecute those accused of fraud, defamation or sedition.

Chin said the heavy-handed amendment could easily be rescinded by Parliament. The Dewan Rakyat, or the House of Representatives, is scheduled to resume session on Sept. 24, with the Senate, called the Dewan Negara, to resume on Dec. 3. Alternatively, the cabinet could issue an order to Malaysia's attorney general to not enforce the amendment, Chin said.

Malaysia's efforts to control the Internet are not unlike efforts in other countries, where governments don't "know how to handle the free flow of information," Chin said.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

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