Do we really need a social media licensing law?

We need to balance protecting individual rights and maintaining democratic process in this era of surveillance capitalism

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By Ngo Sheau Shi

The Malaysian government’s proposed licensing enforcement for social media service providers, as articulated by Deputy Communications Minister Teo Nie Ching, ostensibly aims to address the proliferation of harmful content on social media and internet messaging platforms.

These regulatory measures are to enhance online safety and ensure content complies with national laws.

This initiative underscores Malaysia’s proactive stance in enhancing online safety, combating harmful content and ensuring that digital spaces comply with its law.

Such regulatory measures are increasingly recognised globally as essential in safeguarding the public and maintaining the integrity of digital ecosystems.

While lauding this development, I believe it is crucial to raise awareness of the delicate balance between regulatory efforts and the preservation of freedom of expression within the online ecosystem.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in various international declarations and national constitutions, including Malaysia’s.

The challenge lies in ensuring that the licensing and regulation of social media platforms do not impede the free flow of information or curtail individuals’ rights to express themselves freely online.

To ensure both online safety and the upholding of freedom of expression, the regulatory framework must be grounded in the principles of inclusivity, transparency and respect for human rights.

Given Malaysia’s current political landscape, marked by polarisation along ethno-religious lines – a division that is deeply intertwined with the agendas of certain political groups, any regulation of digital platforms must be carefully crafted.

The regulation should aim to support the flourishing of a multicultural and pluralistic democracy, rather than granting disproportionate power to politicians to wield influence over social media platforms for partisan objectives.

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The law should include clear guidelines and oversight mechanisms to prevent its misuse for political ends. This could involve establishing an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the law, with the power to investigate complaints and ensure compliance with its provisions.

Transparency in the law’s enforcement, including public disclosure of decisions made under its authority, would help build trust and deter potential abuses.

While aiming to prevent content that could incite racial or religious tensions, the law must also protect the rights to freedom of expression and cultural expression.

This balance can be struck by specifying clear, narrow definitions of prohibited content, based on internationally recognised human rights standards. Any restrictions should be necessary, proportionate and the least intrusive means available to achieve the objectives of the law.

This framework must clearly distinguish between content that is genuinely harmful and content that constitutes legitimate expressions of opinion, critique and dissent, especially when directed towards authorities and power structures.

This distinction is crucial for preserving the democratic function of the digital space as a platform for open dialogue and accountability.

More importantly, special provisions should be made to protect the rights of minority groups, ensuring that their voices are not marginalised in the digital sphere. These provisions should include mechanisms for reporting and addressing hate speech or harassment, as well as initiatives to promote diverse representation in online content.

Besides safeguarding online ecosystem, the Malaysian government needs to expand its regulatory focus to oversee how multinational companies manage and use the digital behavioural data of the people of Malaysia. Some of these  companies are known to collect extensive personal data to forecast and shape user behaviour, significantly affecting public discourse.

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Given the rapidly evolving landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) and deepfake technology, the Malaysian government must prioritise the inclusion of specific regulations addressing these challenges in their broader digital governance framework.

The capacity of multinational corporations to harness these technologies, alongside vast datasets of behavioural information, to create highly persuasive and personalised content presents a clear and present danger to the integrity of electoral processes – a fundamental pillar of democratic governance.

So, any national regulatory effort by Malaysia aimed at protecting public welfare must consider the implications of behavioural data collection and its use by Big Tech firms.

This entails implementing measures that ensure transparency in how these platforms collect, analyse, and use user data, especially to ensure electoral integrity.

Regulations should also promote accountability, ensuring that digital platforms cannot misuse behavioural data to unduly influence political outcomes.

The regulation of global social media giants by the Malaysian government should not only focus on content. It also has to address the underlying mechanisms of data collection and analysis, which have profound implications for democracy and public welfare.

This approach would align with a broader understanding of the challenges and responsibilities posed by digital platforms in the surveillance capitalism era.

It highlights the need for comprehensive regulatory frameworks that protect individual rights while maintaining democratic processes in the digital age.

Dr Ngo Sheau Shi is a senior lecturer in the School of Communications at Universiti Sains Malaysia

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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