NOVEMBER 21 — As our G58 Huzhou-Beijing train hurtled across China’s eastern seaboard at over 300km per hour, delegates in my study tour utilised various VPNs (Virtual Personal Network) to post on social media.
It surprises because they circumvented the Great Firewall of China. The system which prohibits — officially speaking — the Internet’s unhindered free flow of information. The people’s republic — 1.4 billion of the planet’s 7.7 billion — spends an offensive amount of Yuan with an army of technicians to render Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail and Twitter inoperable within its borders.
However, millennials born with keypad-ready fingers adopt VPNs to mask their location, and therefore continue to stay equal in access with their global peers.
The Chinese Communist Party, cognisant of the holes in its net, settles for the ability to “annoy” transgressors. Limited success, for the most elaborate and expensive experiment to shield a fifth of humanity from the rest.
Which is where the discussion turns to Malaysia, and the poorly disguised attempt by National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) to demonise Netflix as a source of youth perversion.
There’s too much sex in it, CEO Ahmad Idham Ahmad Nazri claims.
Media and netizens counter-claimed quickly there are safety features to protect children and that it was a guise to assist traffic to Malaysia’s — a competitor, if the word can be loosely used here — Aflix.
To a provider more adapt to our values, I’m assuming the plea is. If heavily censored paid but limited entertainment by a sub-par source is attractive to some Malaysians, they should head that way. Other Malaysians prefer to be left alone.
These storms in teacups would recur as long as there is no clear position on permissible content in Malaysia.
Especially when the reactions are sandiwara — pretensions of action.
Politicians on both sides state their objection, ministers claim action, MCMC (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission) bite at a few to prove virility to its minister and parents walk away thinking they’ve done something when many can’t tell OpenDNS options because of their 404.
Issue abates till the next revelation or shocking statement by celebrities or politicians.
This is not about smut alone, it’s about access.
The Internet is a multiverse, with traditional and new merging into tunnels leading to an ever-expanding highway — driven by miniaturisation and innovation — spiralling information into our lives.
The debate is not about Netflix movies, that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Content is not just films and TV shows. There are millions of independent producers, platforms for their productions as technology keeps making shooting, editing and uploading easier by the day.
For instance, there are 300 hours YouTube videos added per minute, who’s going to censor them, Idham? Per minute, not day.
My uncle used to switch off the TV when a kissing scene beckoned on screen in his two-room flat. It mattered little to him that his kids were in their twenties in 1990s Singapore. He had the remote control.
It might as well have been a galaxy far, far away than a block across Tanah Merah MRT, when I look back at it in 2019.
The tap won’t run dry anymore, today. There are an infinite number of pipes.
We are the world
It’s not hopeless, the desire to keep our children safe. Because all societies agree on the goal, though they differ on degrees of permissibility for corresponding age-groups.
There are broad areas of agreement, to insulate children while they wade in the Internet.
The 0.4 per cent which Malaysia constitutes to the world’s whole, must accede to global community standards. To join the rest elsewhere, who share their fears and worries, to keep X amount away from the young.
This could be the bulwark of our content policy. Nothing spectacular, but great policies are built on clarity and ease of adoption, not by degree of bizarreness.
Global community standard is an evolving measure dealing with content despite moving goalposts. It’s self-regulation by platform owners through the engagement of various stakeholders, and erring on the side of caution on content, inasmuch as not to flagrantly undo rights of expression.
A mouthful, yes, and severely limited of course, but there is no other choice.
As a moderate sized nation, not at the edge of technological advancements or the funds to commit for a Malaysian firewall, affecting the community standards is the reasonable solution.
To complete the measure is parents being involved in evaluating content with their children. Parenting is the answer to a child’s well-being, and that includes the role of the Internet in the said child’s life.
There are too many holes in the boat, the adults must teach those they are responsible for to know water, enjoy the water, float in it and then swim. Standing in the boat asking for fingers they don’t possess to plug holes so the child does not get wet is foolish.
Community standards or screaming at the mountains
Cultures and values differ of course.
Any minister in charge will struggle to explain to larger Malaysia, that what on average we find deplorable would be par for the course elsewhere.
For instance, the visibility of homosexuality in entertainment. There are alternative lifestyles in so much of western content today, it’s not just scenes.
Songs your kids are TikTok-ing in the living room might be outright expression of same sex love or visceral in the accompanying music video. Community standards would not oppose such content.
We’d have to learn to cope with that. The region of content not barred by global community standards.
Whether they are normalised in Malaysian lives is not for this column to suggest or champion. However, the need to engage remains.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, the Thai health minister appeared holding condom balloons to promote safe sex. Thailand is as Asian as they come when it is the public face but when too many people die, you’d have to stop being holier than thou when confronting the disease. As did Muslim leaders in Uganda back then, asking congregants to use prophylactics despite the moral incongruence of premarital sex.
The Internet is our epidemic, as much as our future economy.
The content overflow into Malaysian homes ill-equipped to deal with the situation is a time-bomb.
Dire but we struggle to respond
Malaysia’s main stumbling block to an Internet content policy is that we do not have a culture of bringing the nation into a conversation. The ministers — before and now — prefer to tell people what they should feel about anything. And when the information battle involves sex, as the Internet is inundated with it, they resort to preaching. That they seek to tame it and put it in a pretend jar.
They might as well scream at the Titiwangsa Range, which separates the peninsula’s more permissible west and fear-mongering east — though porn viewing averages should hold steady on both coasts.
Acceptance that the dam broke a while back would be the starting point.
Bringing more into the conversation through state facilitation would be second.
Then we can ask the world to shield us a bit by our engagement in global community standards, and deal with the rest ourselves.
Idham is not the last person to present his worries about the Internet. But without a sense of the dimension and scope of the challenge from a Malaysian perspective and then to embed our content policy to sit comfortably in the world’s zeitgeist, if that path is not coursed now, we are asking for trouble in the long-run.
And in this information age, the long run is less than a decade away. Warning is served.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.