Digital Rights in Malaysia

25 Oct 2015 Workshop on Digital Rights

In partnership with EngageMedia, a workshop was held to discuss digital rights in Malaysia. Previous workshops were focused on providing more urgent assistance and training such as how to stay anonymous, digital devices security and safety online. We manage to discuss digital rights issues which related to privacy, freedom of expression and innovation especially threats that faced by the politician, activists and CSO.

The session was attended by representatives from several CSOs and media organisations, including MESYMIDEASAsal Bukan UMNO (ABU)SUARAM and


Feedback and insights were gained from discussions on Freedom of Expression, Privacy and Innovation from participants:

Freedom of expression online

Malaysia’s constitution provides citizens with “the right to freedom of speech and expression,” and MSC Malaysia has guaranteed in the Bill of Guarantees No.71, ensuring no censorship of the Internet. However, several online news portals such as Sarawak Report, Malaysian-Chronicle, and The Edge has been censored recently because of posted the scandals and fraud of ruling government.

The major threat is political censorship. There is lack of check and balance system in judicial bodies, thus, some issues were hidden due to censorship and valuable public information is inaccessible to the masses. In past few years there have been several cases on the restriction of freedom of expression using Internet and digital technologies, such as opposition activists, parliamentarians, student leaders, CSO members, human rights lawyers, journalists, academics etc. charged with Sedition Act, Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) and Penal Code. Not much has been publicly discussed yet or publicly known, on the possible implications of other laws such as the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) that could also be used to restrict use of digital publications, for example Zunar’s cartoon in digital formats.  

Privacy and data protection

The rights to privacy in Malaysia is under threat in digital space. A leaked information online revealed that the Malaysian Government bought Spyware services from Hacking Team, an organization known for selling spyware systems to governments to spy on their citizens. Also, Malaysian government passed the amendment on the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) in 2013, which authorizes phone-tapping and communications powers to the government and also electronic anklet to track the freed detainees of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PoTA). With surveillance by the government, an introduction to measures on self defense against surveillance is needed.

There is lack of control of personal data protection in Malaysia. For private sector services providers, data is the type of product which can be easily sold to a third party. The causes identified are a public lack of awareness on giving and sharing personal data, especially when registering and signing on to services. Government or authority can also request any of the company referring the data for investigation purposes, because Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) does not cover government agencies and bodies. Thus, government and authority can easily monitor citizen movements due to the lack of data protection between government agencies.

Innovation and academic freedom

Malaysian Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) laws at this time are not very restrictive for innovation, for example software patents and design, productions of multimedia such as films, documentations, animations and audios, academic research and so on, but there are upcoming threats of possible introduction of restrictive IPR laws through harmonization of laws via trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Act (TPPA). This would lead local amendments to be similar to US law,  Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) and with it problems related to its abuse such as academic freedom to research or on freedom of expression via take down notices.

Similar extensions to copyright protection and recognition of software patents, could also result in restrictions for digital innovation. Laws and regulations that could allow Internet Service Providers to provide personal data without court order on issues related to copyright violations can also be threat to privacy.

Taking forward the discussion

There were also several recommendations brought up by the participants during the discussion to overcome the threats and gain public discourse.

Crowdsourcing feedback for TPPA

The idea of TPPA crowdsource is to bring up public discourse on the IPR chapter and call for policy lobbying via sub-webpage of IPR chapter on Bantah (Against) TPPA main website. In addition, we (Sinar Project) are currently crowdsourcing the TPPA-IPR Chapter’s documents for review and combining expert comments from local and international CSOs such as Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI). With the comments and recommendations, we will prepare a policy brief to elected representatives to raise our concern.

There is time constraint to do this because there is only 90 days from 4 October 2015, which is the date government of Malaysia agreed on the agreement to be brought into parliament debate until the agreement to be signed. Limited time and resources are the obstacles to coordinate and communicate with stakeholders.

Digital security hub

The participants also raised the possible solutions to overcome the digital rights violations and circumvent censorship. Digital security hub suggested by the participants, to form a core team of technical and non-technical support persons, to provide digital security training including use of digital devices and software for at risk activists and CSOs. The hub will  also provide digital devices such as radio, walkie-talkie, computer and so on for the CSO’s programmes. It is the safeguards to overcome possible surveillance by government via digital devices tap-in and intrusion of internet and software. The idea is also building a trustworthy and sustainable CSO ecosystem, where the digital rights defenders come in to give advice and tech support to CSOs in need.

Security, privacy and control of personal data integrate into education system

After all, education system is the most important component to bring awareness to people especially for the younger generations. In the workshop, there were few participants suggested to integrate the knowledge of security, privacy and control of personal data into our education system. However, there are several barriers for this such as human resources. In Malaysia, we have lack of subject matter experts in the field of data protection law, IT and education.

Why should we defend digital rights?

Digital rights are human rights in this digital era. Privacy, personal liberty and freedom of expression are basic human rights. In the digital world, privacy is personal information and data, from which extensive personal profiles can be built. Lack of digital privacy provides powerful tools for personal political and economic surveillance by government.

With 80% Internet penetration rate, free expression in digital era is an increasingly important form of communication among. In Malaysia, government tries to limit free speech with justification of controlling hate speech online or harassment. But where are the boundaries and accountabilities? Independent online news portals are being censored, selected prosecution on opposition activists, members of CSO and journalists. There are no proper list of censorship or content guidelines in the board of multimedia and communication department. This lack of accountability requires constant oversight by CSOs.

Another disturbing trend it is increasing disparity between the penalties of on-line offenses as compared to the same offence offline. As an example, penalty for criminal insult is an MYR 100 fine, while lesser offence of annoyance online, the penalty is up to MYR 50,000 fine and 1 year jail sentence. This disproportionate penalties will have chilling effect on freedom of expression, but also on innovation.

Moving forward and call to action

To increase the awareness and knowledge of digital rights and security, we will continue to organise training workshop and discussion for all the stakeholders especially the communities at risk. We will share more details on future planning on digital rights and security actions. In the meantime, we welcome your ideas and contributions to make the movement happen.