Net abuse: storm in Malaysia’s tea cup

Posted on June 25, 1999 
Filed Under CNET, Julian

By Julian Matthews
June 25, 1999

Malaysian Internet users have been on the receiving end of bad press lately. From the focus of such incidents by local media, one senses that the Ugly Malaysian Net User is alive and thriving. Hacking, spamming, mail bombing, spreading rumors, libel, credit card fraud and Internet scams. Malaysian users appear to have become conversant in all forms of Net abuse.

The offensive stance taken by some sectors of government has lent credence to the belief that local users are an irresponsible lot.

Three weeks ago, Ibrahim Ali, a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, was quoted as saying that Umno, the dominant political party, was mounting a legal campaign against Internet Web sites critical of the government under Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He said some 3,000 pages have been downloaded from the Internet containing defamatory material against the Government and Umno.

Ibrahim said Umno’s anti-defamation committee discovered the pages over a two-month period and the subject matter ranged from independence of the judiciary to accusations of corruption. “I don’t rule out the possibility that the Web sites are being funded by foreign elements, perhaps using students to do the work,” said Ibrahim.

He said the committee was keeping tabs on the allegations and may take legal action, but conceded it was difficult to trace the Web masters because many sites were based overseas.

“I don’t rule out the possibility that the Web sites are being funded by foreign elements, perhaps using students to do the work.”
–Ibrahim Ali, Deputy Minister, Prime Minister’s Department.

The party has been particularly incensed by the over 50 Web sites that have sprouted in support of expelled party Deputy President Anwar Ibrahim, who was also Deputy Premier and Finance Minister.

Until September last year, discussions on Malaysian politics on the Net were confined to the odd newsgroup or two. When Anwar was ousted, the people took to the Internet with a vengeance. Conservative estimates say the number of users may have doubled during the period of the crisis surrounding Anwar. At the height of the political upheavals last year, Cabinet Ministers and senior police officers were rumored to have resigned. Announcements of coming rallies and demonstrations, deemed illegal by the government, were advertised on the Net.

Newsgroups were filled with lurid details and stinging rebukes. Web site owners aggregated news without copyright permission, and posted a variety of provocative material. Much of this literature was printed, copied and widely distributed even to those without Net access.

Buoyed by the perception that the traditional forms of media were state-controlled, Malaysians turned to the Net for more credible–and incredible–news. They also actively participated in the newsgroups, mailing lists and chat servers–the virtual equivalent of the ubiquitous Malaysian coffeeshop.

Over in the capital city, Anwar supporters were being water-cannoned and dragged to jail in scenes more akin to a police state; on the Net there appeared to be a thriving democracy.

The hidden epidemic

But like any “thriving democracy”, there has been a cost attached at the end. Malaysians, described as conservative by nature, seem completely uninhibited on the Net, posting false information, trading foul language and promulgating a variety of offensive and even racist opinions. The culprits often hide behind fictitious names, and at times their noise has drowned out the more credible voices on the Net.

The Anwar incident may have heightened the volume of mischief on the Net, but Malaysian users are already garnering a bad reputation for their misdeeds. Even prior to September, Malaysians were being banned or k-lined from chat servers for various abuses, including scrolling, flooding and mass messaging.

A North American abuse coordinator for the popular Undernet.org chat servers, only known by the handle “Angel”, suggested that some of the blame might lie with local ISPs (Internet Service Providers)–TMnet and Jaring–for allowing abusers to go scot-free.

“The Undernet’s abuse group has tried repeatedly to develop responsible and responsive abuse contact within the tm.net.my and jaring.my providers to handle abuse complaints to no avail. I personally have contacted the MyCERT team in the past with less than satisfactory results,” said Angel in response to an email query.

MyCERT is the local chapter of the Computer Emergency Response Team, which provides a point of reference for the Internet community in Malaysia to deal with computer security incidents and their prevention.

In March, local media reported that Malaysians were being repeatedly banned by DALnet chat servers for abusive behavior. Because the two ISPs practise dynamic Internet Protocol addressing instead of static IPs, some DALnet servers may have found it hard to trace offenders and instead banned all users with *.my addresses.

Angel suggested the geographical ban may have also been used as a resource-conserving device as TMnet already had its own DALnet chat server.

Internet security consultant and cracking hobbyist Dinesh Nair believed that Net abuse is usually confined to “a few immature users”, giving the rest a bad name. “Many others have committed Net abuse due to ignorance or first-time blues. These people I am willing to forgive, but it is the ones who do it intentionally that need to be punished,” he said.

He added that the ISPs can nip such incidents in the bud if their abuse desks are staffed and always listening to take action. “The problem is, of the two ISPs in Malaysia, only one listens and takes action on complaints of abuse. The other seems to send complaints to the bit bucket.”

Grappling with the new medium

Nair said that if the Government is serious about curbing Net abuse it should also take a more participatory role in the Internet, especially in mailing lists and newsgroups and in having consistently updated Web sites.

“Last August, when there were rumors of rioting in the capital city, the Government could have countered it by setting up a live Web cam in the affected area and beaming it on the Internet,” he said.

In the incident, the Internet was rife with rumors that disgruntled Indonesian workers had armed themselves and were rioting in Kuala Lumpur, sending city dwellers into panic provision buying. Government action was swift. Four people were arrested under the harsh Internal Security Act for allegedly spreading the rumors via email. All four later claimed not guilty to charges of causing public fear, which carries a two-year jail sentence or a fine, or both. Their cases are still pending in court.

“If the Government had issued an official Internet response, it would have at least had caused some to pause and think before forwarding the mail,” said Nair. He suggested that the Government should assign people to build its credibility on the Net by posting responses on matters of public concern. “It takes time to build that credibility, and you can do that only by being involved. Respond to criticism, tell your side of the story and let the public decide,” he said.

Nair also added that the Information Ministry should perhaps play the role of coordinating the various Government Web sites, some of which are in dire need of new and updated information. “The Government is fast realizing that the advent of ‘information at your fingertips’ applies to them also. Lots of people are asking for this, and refusal or failure to provide this only brings up dissatisfaction,” he noted.

In light of the apparent rise in Net abuse, the Ministry of Energy, Communications and Multimedia recently announced plans to introduce a Code of Ethics for Internet users by year’s end.

Internet surfers are, however, skeptical whether such a code can be enforced, or even if it merely serves as a guideline, whether Net users will bother reading and conforming to the code. They point to the fact that Malaysia already has various legislation in place to curb Net abuse, including a Computer Crime Act and Communications and Multimedia Act; the latter calls for steep fines on the offender. Even the police have formed a technology crime unit to handle such criminal violations.

Underlying the government’s concerns is the belief that the Internet has become an influential force to sway public opinion. If Malaysia wants to participate in molding that opinion then it must jump in with both feet, not hand out laws from top-down. How else can any government encourage free flow of information and expect it to come with only prescribed political, social and cultural norms?

“No one really controls the Net, so it can cut both ways. But it generally does not cut the credible. Not everyone is going to agree with your views and some will definitely point out your flaws. The trick is to show the good points, your strengths and win them over. If you attempt to stifle this criticism, you’re only giving the impression that you can’t rise above your flaws,” concludes Nair.

Published in CNET Asia, June 25, 1999: Pg 1 | Pg 2 | Pg 3

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