Sarawak Report should sue MCMC for blocking site, say lawyers

I was quoted by Malaysia Insider on their report “Sarawak Report should sue MCMC for blocking site, say lawyers” on 22 July 2015. The relevant extract is below.

However, personal data protection expert and lawyer Foong Cheng Leong told The Malaysian Insider that none of the provisions in the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 explicitly provided for blocking access to sites.

In justifying its decision, MCMC on Sunday said it had acted according to Section 211 and 233 of the act. Both these sections provide for criminal prosecution against those who have been deemed to publish “offensive” content, or content that intends to “annoy” or “harass” any person.

Under both sections, an offender can be sentenced to not more than one year jail or RM50,000 fine, or both.

But Foong said the more relevant act that MCMC could have used to justify its action was Section 263, which said licensees, which were network providers, had the general duty to assist MCMC in preventing the network being in commission of any offence under Malaysian laws.

“This is the provision that is used to compel service providers to help block a website upon request by MCMC,” Foong said.

However, even this section did not explicitly provide for the blocking of a website.

Service providers are not obligated by law to cede to requests to block certain cites, but they normally comply with such requests since MCMC regulates their licences.

“It is possible to bring this matter to the court and challenge it, one possibility is to say that this is ultra vires what is provided for in the act itself,” Foong said.

Section 3 (3) of the same act states that the act does not allow for the censorship of the Internet, in line of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) Bill of Guarantees, which promised the same.

“And because the act doesn’t explicitly provide for blocking of a website, one can also argue that MCMC is acting beyond its scope (with the block).”

There’s a slight clarification on the use of s. 263. If we look at MCMC’s notice, it did state that the blocking order is made pursuant to s. 263 of the CMA. The exact section is s. 263(2) of the CMA which provides the following:

(2) A licensee shall, upon written request by the Commission or any other authority, assist the Commission or other authority as far as reasonably necessary in preventing the commission or attempted commission of an offence under any written law of Malaysia or otherwise in enforcing the laws of Malaysia, including, but not limited to, the protection of the public revenue and preservation of national security.

The sentence “preventing the commission or attempted commission of an offence” is key here. No actual offence needs to be committed but an attempt is sufficient to enable MCMC to act against a website. The section does not expressly state “blocking order” but such blocking order is commonly used against unlawful websites such as pornography or drugs websites.

I made further comments in the Malay Mail in their article “Sarawak Report blockage shines light on ‘abusive’ MCMC powers” on this matter:-

Lawyer Foong Cheng Leong, who is well-versed with cyber law, said Section 263(2) has a wide scope and could be interpreted “very liberally” to mean that MCMC can ask ISPs to block a website even when no complaint or police report has been lodged.

“You don’t have to wait for the court to convict the person to block the website,” the KL Bar Information Technology committee chairman told Malay Mail Online when contacted, adding that even prosecution was not a requirement for the section to apply.

Foong said there is “room for abuse” as the MCMC can cite the broadly-worded clause to block websites without reasonable basis, but noted that website owners could seek legal remedy by attempting to have unjustified blocks declared unlawful and beyond the MCMC’s authority.

Both Foong and Amer Hamzah said there appears to be no tribunal available for website owners to appeal to and it is unclear whether the CMA’s Section 82 on resolving disputes through negotiation covers such cases.

The two lawyers suggested safeguards to curb any possible power abuses by MCMC under Section 263 (2), with both saying that the regulator should notify the website owner when it makes a written request to the ISPs to block the websites.

“If you look at the Home Ministry’s website, there is a list of books being banned. Why can’t we have say a list what kind of website has been banned?” Foong asked, adding that a clear avenue for website owners to appeal to the MCMC decision must be provided.

Foong said, however, that some curbs were justifiable, citing as example Islamic State militants’ propaganda as well as existing restrictions on pornography, gambling and drugs.

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