Malaysia’s social media licensing plans raise ‘abuse of power’ concerns

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s plans to license social media and messaging platforms, subjecting them to greater government oversight, has sparked increasing concern in recent weeks, with the country’s internet regulator summoned before a parliamentary select committee hearing on July 2.

Special Select Committee on Nation Building, Education and Human Resources Development chairman Saifuddin Abdullah told The Straits Times that the parliamentary panel was briefed by top officials from the communications ministry as well as the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

However, the committee has asked for a detailed report, breaking down the number of takedown requests annually going back to 2020 and by categories such as scams, pornography and political content “to better understand the landscape and what kind of regulatory powers are needed by the authorities”.

“What is important is not to rush through the process without all stakeholders understanding each other so we can ensure we address the issue of freedoms versus abuse of power,” said Datuk Seri Saifuddin, who was communications and multimedia minister from March 2020 to August 2021. 

This comes on the back of an open letter issued on June 27 by 44 organisations and 23 individual activists to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim decrying the licensing proposal as a “blatant abuse of power” and “an attack on a healthy, functioning democracy” that “shrinks public participation”.

The letter follows TikTok’s revelation that Malaysia’s government made the world’s highest number of requests to take down content in the second half of 2023, with such demands surging multiple-fold during his first year in power.

The Straits Times reported on June 24 that the Malaysian government’s move towards a licensing regime for social media and messaging platforms ranging from TikTok, Telegram and X to the various apps under Google (YouTube, Google Chat) and Meta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) had stirred concerns of overreach among stakeholders.

The administration, led by Datuk Seri Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, had said when first mooting such licences in 2023, that the aim is to facilitate revenue-sharing with local content producers such as news media, as well as to stem what the authorities deem as harmful and illegal content.

But several industry and civil society representatives who attended the briefings with MCMC from April to June told ST that there was little to no mention of digital revenue-sharing.

Instead, proposals discussed included a kill switch to summarily take down content deemed egregious, forcing licensees to allow their content moderation and algorithm processes to be audited, as well as to have an entity domiciled in Malaysia that would be subject to penalties under local law.

These proposals were met with pushback from the platform owners themselves as well as from civil society.

Plans to allow for pre-emptive action to prevent offences were also described by some experts as “too Minority Report”, a reference to the popular 2002 Tom Cruise movie depicting the arrest of alleged criminals before crimes are committed through the use of precognition.

This comes amid growing claims that the authorities are curbing freedom of speech, with Kuala Lumpur stepping up online censorship, especially on video-sharing app TikTok, the social media platform where the opposition Perikatan Nasional is strongest.

As a whole, 2023 – the first full year that Mr Anwar was in power since taking office in November 2022 – saw takedown requests from Malaysia surge more than 30-fold on TikTok, compared with 2022, while Meta reported a 15-fold jump to nearly 8,600 instances of content restriction.

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