Bread & Kaya: Are WhatsApp admins going to jail?
By Foong Cheng Leong | May 02, 2017
– Two key elements in s. 233 are not fulfilled by a group chat admin
– To use s. 114A to attach liability on a group chat admin is stretching s. it too far
I REFER to the recent news reports stating that the Honourable Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Jailani Johari announced that group chat admins can be held accountable under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) if they fail to stop the spread of false news to its members.
With due respect to the Honourable Deputy Ministry, the CMA, in particular s. 233 of the CMA, does not attach any liability to an admin of a group chat admin for spreading “false news”.
For ease of reference, I reproduce s. 233 of the Act:-
233 Improper use of network facilities or network service, etc
(1) A person who-
(a) by means of any network facilities or network service or applications service knowingly-
(ii) initiates the transmission of,
any comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person; or
(b) initiates a communication using any applications service, whether continuously, repeatedly or otherwise, during which communication may or may not ensue, with or without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person at any number or electronic address,
commits an offence.
(2) A person who knowingly-
(a) by means of a network service or applications service provides any obscene communication for commercial purposes to any person; or
(b) permits a network service or applications service under the person’s control to be used for an activity described in paragraph (a),
commits an offence.
(3) A person who commits an offence under this section shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding fifty thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both and shall also be liable to a further fine of one thousand ringgit for every day during which the offence is continued after conviction.
The offence under s. 233(1) of the CMA is committed by a person who uses any network facilities or network service or applications service knowingly makes, creates or solicits and initiates the transmission of an offensive communication with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person. Two key elements in s. 233 are not fulfilled by a group chat admin namely “knowingly make or initiates the offensive communication” and “with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”.
As for s. 233(2), liability is only attached to a person who knowingly provide or permits an applications service to provide any obscene communication for commercial purposes. This is also not applicable to the present case.
It is noted that s. 114A of the Evidence Act 1950 provides for three circumstances where an Internet user is deemed to be a publisher of a content unless proven otherwise by him or her. The relevant section, namely s. 114A(1), states that “A person whose name, photograph or pseudonym appears on any publication depicting himself as the owner, host , administrator, editor or sub-editor, or who in any manner facilitates to publish or re-publish the publication is presumed to have published or re-published the contents of the publication unless the contrary is proved”.
In simple words, if your name, photograph or pseudonym appears on any publication depicting yourself as the aforesaid persons, you are deemed to have published the content.
To use s. 114A to attach liability on a group chat admin is stretching s. 114A too far. It must be highlighted that s. 114A was introduced to “provide for the presumption of fact in publication in order to facilitate the identification and proving of the identity of an anonymous person involved in publication through the internet” (Explanatory Statement of Evidence (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012). Common sense would dictate that a group chat admin is not a publisher of their member’s messages.
In fact, in the Delhi High Court case of Ashish Bhalla vs Suresh Chawdhury & Ors, the Court held that:-
Similarly, I am unable to understand as to how the Administrator of a Group can be held liable for defamation even if any, by the statements made by a member of the Group. To make an Administrator of an online platform liable for defamation would be like making the manufacturer of the newsprint on which defamatory statements are published liable for defamation. When an online platform is created, the creator thereof cannot expect any of the members thereof to indulge in defamation and defamatory statements made by any member of the group cannot make the Administrator liable therefor. It is not as if without the Administrator‟s approval of each of the statements, the statements cannot be posted by any of the members of the Group on the said platform
Perhaps the Honourable Deputy Minister should clarify which section in the CMA attaches liability to a group chat admin to avoid further confusion and panic to group chat admins.
First published on Digital News Asia on 2 May 2017.