Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Sow seeds of responsibility

Putik Lada By H.R. Dipendra



Use the Internet and new social media for constructive expression of ideas, views and accountability, not to sow discord, spread lies and divide the population.

PLANS to amend the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) to include online publications have set the online community abuzz, with comments fast and furious on the incredulity of the suggestion.

Notwithstanding the denials issued by the authorities, the question that follows is: What if this should become reality?

The idea was to expand on the rigid requirements of the PPPA to include online publications. This would have a tremendous effect on the online publications that many have come to rely on as daily staple.

Often, in a globalised world, two or even three seemingly unconnected events can have a net effect on each other.

The recent events in the Arab world and the release of swathes of classified correspondence which we all have come to know as the WikiLeaks saga can be viewed disjunctively, but I just wonder if indeed these events spooked the suggestion to expand the PPPA.

Both the Arab world protests and WikiLeaks do not share a clear and obvious connection to each other. However, they both thrived on one common platform i.e. the power of new social media and the Internet.

The Internet, principally through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, has galvanised people to stand up against corruption and mismanagement. It is a powerful moving force that has brought together all walks of life with a common agenda.

Should there be regulation of the Internet and new social media, whether directly or indirectly? Should we be quick to control what can easily be used to manipulate and overthrow legitimate governments?

No doubt, the Internet and new social media have their critics who simply believe that these cause mischief and mayhem, and by extension regard them as banes of human existence.

Aside from the physical difficulties in censoring and choking the Internet and new social media, where proxy servers are rampant, the huge cost associated with tracking and monitoring comments online makes it difficult for any authority.

By enlarging the scope of the PPPA, it would, over time, have the effect of creating more dissent, and “underground” servers will grow unabated.

In a country which has an Internet penetration of more than 66%, and with Facebook and Twitter growing exponentially, wouldn’t this be seen as a regressive step designed to be exclusionary rather than be inclusionary of the population in a year where many expect an election to be called?

Given the complex design of the Internet, it is impossible to completely control access to information, except in very limited and controlled circumstances. One may be able to control access to a specific site from a home computer, or use a firewall to block certain sites from employees on a workplace network.

The progress of civilisation directly relates to individual expression of new ideas, even if such ideas are unpopular. The principle of freedom of speech is the most important value society can uphold.

The Internet not only provides universal access to free speech, it also promotes the basic concept of freedom of speech.

Justice Olivier Holmes, dissenting in the celebrated case of Abrams v United States, captured it best when he said that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas, (and) the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market”.

In essence, there is an inherent value in truth being best decided in a free marketplace of ideas, and consequently it is that ability of the Internet to act as a promoter of free speech that we must all cherish and respect.

I am very sure that all Malaysians will, over time, recognise this as a universal and accepted truth. We cannot be seen to be regressive in an era where the opposite is demanded to help us stamp our mark as a developed nation.

I will be the first to admit that online expression of ideas can sometimes be destructive. It is in our nature as human beings to be destructive, but this is not to mean that we should curb and over-regulate what is commonly perceived as a good thing.

What we need is continuous education and self-regulation. All of us have a role to play in that we must all be vigilant against destructive elements determined to cause chaos and anarchy.

While the authorities on their part must encourage free flow of information, we as members of the public and civil society must repay this “sacrifice” by making sure that the Internet and new social media are used for healthy and constructive expression of ideas, views and accountability.

They cannot be used to sow discord, spread lies and divide the population.

There are many ways to approach the ever growing presence of social media. Often the authorities will maintain a policy of rigidity and tightening of the rules when a more suitable response will be that of flexibility, engagement, concessions and political wisdom.

In a year that promises an election, adopting a position that requires the censorship and over-regulation of online publications will only be counter-productive and detrimental to the civic and mental development of Malay­sia.

> The writer is a member of the National Young Lawyers Committee of the Bar Council. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, visit www.malaysianbar.org.my.

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