KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 15 — Internet freedom in Malaysia marginally improved this year due to better internet penetration and speed, a report said.
According to Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2017” (FOTN) report, Malaysia scored a total of 44 points on its Internet Freedom Index, one less than the 2016 score of 45, indicating a “Partly Free” environment but acknowledged growing persecution and arrests for online speech.
The index rates a country’s overall freedom from 0 to 100, with 0 meaning non-restricted and 100 meaning most restricted.
Malaysia’s scoring remained the same in the category of limits on content, scoring 16 out of 35 and violations of user rights scoring 20 out of 40, but improved by one point in the obstacles to access category scoring 8 out of 25.
The group said that despite a digital divide between rural and urban areas, internet access in Malaysia was considered “excellent for the region,” with government policies that promote access and high mobile phone penetration reducing the gap.
Internet penetration rose by 7.7 per cent between 2015 and 2016 and an open market allowed fierce competition among providers, resulting in attractive pricing and high quality service. The average speed rose from 6.4 Mbps in the first quarter of 2016 to 8.9 Mbps in 2017 during the same period.
However, the report said that average internet speed was still comparatively slow, and many users complained of inefficient service.
Malaysia ranked 74th in the world in 2016 when it came to internet speeds, having fallen one place since 2015. In the Asia Pacific, Malaysia was 9th among 15 countries.
#NetFreedom2017—— SEAPA (@seapa) November 15, 2017
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The government announced in the national budget for 2017 that internet service providers would increase fixed-line broadband internet speed without raising prices, while the Malaysia Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) was slated to invest heavily to improve broadband coverage and quality, aiming to achieve connection speeds of 20 Mbps throughout the country.
The average penetration still varies with the Klang Valley area at 99.9 per cent while the populated states of Sabah was still at 43.3 per cent and Sarawak 51.8 per cent.
Government statistics show that men represented 59.4 per cent of both internet and mobile users, with the most prolific users aged between 20 to 24 (22 per cent). Statistic also show that the average age of non-users showed an increase, indicating that older age groups were starting to go online.
The report stated that internet users faced often criminal charges under a “problematic” law for online comments about ruling politicians and Malay rulers.
“The government has said it may amend that law to combat ‘false news’, and many people were skeptical about a new a state-led initiative to encourage users to verify news and information they read online,” it said.
The report said that authorities use the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) to prosecute voices of dissent, with a total of 37 cases filed in 2016 under Section 233 of the CMA for “improper use of network facilities or network service”. A total of 181 alleged social media abuses were recorded during the same period.
The MCMC is also currently investigating 167 cases of “internet and social media abuse” in 2016 and early 2017, including CMA violations involving “false content and information spread through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.”
In the past year, targets of online persecution included: a number of people for Facebook posts considered offensive towards the crown prince of the southern state of Johor, a youth for allegedly insulting the Terengganu Sultan, seven individuals including a student, for comments about a dead politician; two members of a civil society group who mentioned the Sultan of Johor while criticising environmental issues in the area; and an opposition activist who mocked the prime minister and his wife.
All cases were pending in mid-2017.
The report also noted that there were no newly blocked websites in the past year, but several popular news websites and blogs — Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and blog-publishing platform Medium — were blocked in 2015 and 2016 and remained unaccessible for controversial content. Some were deemed “detrimental to national security”.
“Transparency about blocking is limited. Blocks are implemented on the authority of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). No list of affected sites is available. Site owners can appeal directly to the MCMC if mistakenly blocked, though they are not guaranteed to be heard,” it said.
It also alleged that MCMC, being government-run and despite a multi-stakeholder advisory board, has a poor record of upholding internet freedom, having taken steps to curtail online speech.
“Combative political reporting online may have caused the government or its supporters to try to censor a handful of news websites in the lead-up to 2013 elections. The sites were simultaneously targeted by hackers, and the cause of the service disruption remains unclear. At least two outlets filed a complaint with the MCMC, which never responded,” said the report.
“Freedom on the Net” is an annual report that ranks countries on their online freedom and provides a global overview of developments in the area. It was first released in 2009.
It is conducted by Freedom House, a pro-freedom and democracy organisation based in and funded by the United States.