Internet Users Arrested for Spreading Riot Rumors

Posted on August 17, 1998 
Filed Under AsiaBizTech, Julian

By Julian Matthews

August 17, 1998 (KUALA LUMPUR) — Malaysian police have arrested three people for allegedly spreading rumors of riots in the capital city via the Internet.

The three are being held under Section 73 (1) of the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows them to be held for up to 60 days.

A special police team set up to investigate the rumors arrested a 37-year-old computer firm employee at his office and a 25-year-old woman at a construction firm on Aug. 11, and a bank employee in his 30s, on Aug. 12.

This is believed to be the first time Internet users in Malaysia were detained under the harsh ISA law for allegedly compromising the nation’s security.

Early in August, the Malaysian capital was rife with rumors, spread via email and newsgroup postings and then by word of mouth, that Indonesians were amassing parangs (machetes) and knives obtained from hardware stores.

On Aug. 7, hoax messages said that Indonesian immigrants in two neighborhoods had started rioting to protest an Aug. 15 deadline to deport foreigners who hadn’t applied to renew work permits.

Indonesians comprise the bulk of the nearly 2 million foreign workers in Malaysia, of whom many are illegal immigrants.

The rumors caused concern in the foreign exchange markets and panic buying of food provisions by local residents who feared a possible police curfew. The incident infuriated the Malaysian government, already reeling from a worsening economic crisis, and hurting its efforts to bolster investor confidence.

The government threatened a crackdown on the so-called “cyber rumor-mongers.”

Inspector-General of Police Abdul Rahim Noor said the suspects were detained after police tracked their activities on the Internet with the assistance of Mimos Bhd., one of two Internet service providers in Malaysia.

“We have identified several other people suspected to be involved and will soon make more arrests to end the rumor- mongering once and for all,” Abdul Rahim told reporters on Aug. 11.

“So far our investigations did not show any indications that the rumors originated from outside (the country),” he said. Abdul Rahim said that police were confident of arresting more suspects and determining the source of the rumors and the motives of those involved.

The arrests and the means by which the police traced the alleged originators of the messages shocked Malaysia’s Internet community.

One Internet user, who requested anonymity, said the incident has caused a “fear of reprisal” that may hurt Malaysia’s ambitions for developing Internet-related activities.

“It goes against the grain of Malaysia’s intentions to become a technology hub through the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC),” he added.

The MSC is a 750-sq.-km zone that the Malaysian government hopes will attract international information technology companies for developing advanced software and hardware applications. The government has stressed that one of the MSC’s guarantees is that there will be no censorship of the Internet.

“I think we are sending a wrong message to the world. The incident curbs the building of Internet communities, and the freedom to interact globally for fear of prying eyes,” the Internet user said.

Mimos Bhd., the operator of the Jaring Internet service with about over 200,000 subscribers, said that it would trace users’ accounts only under special circumstances.

Mohamed Awang Lah, Mimos vice president (government sector), said that although the company had assisted in tracking down the alleged originators of the rumor messages, it wished to dispel the notion that it screened users’ private email or that the police could do so.

“We do not monitor the content of email sent or received through the network. We respect the privacy of subscribers and will only take action to trace accounts when law enforcement agencies submit written requests or if we want to take legal action and make a police report on Internet fraud,” Mohamed said.

He said Mimos would also conduct traces if it received complaints of incidents of “spamming” (junk mail), “mailbombing” (flooding of an email account) or the receipt of threatening or abusive email from users.

Mohamed said Mimos was able to trace the suspects from header trails of the email or newsgroup postings. “From this information and by using Jaring’s audit trail records and account databases, Mimos could trace the accounts used to send the mail,” he said.

Last week, Mimos sent an email message to all its subscribers to remind them not to send unsolicited mail to unknown people or redistribute email from unknown or suspicious sources. Subscribers participating in newsgroups or mailing-list discussions, were asked to refrain from making any incorrect, false or misleading statements especially on matters related to religious or racial issues.

The Internal Security Act, 1960, allows for detention without trial of up two years. It was initially used against militant communists, but more recently to muzzle government critics, passport forgers and others. In 1987, 106 dissidents were detained under the ISA in a government crackdown. Opposition parties, human rights workers and political activists have vigorously opposed the ISA labeling it “draconian” and have repeatedly called for its repeal.

Published in Asia BizTech, Aug 17, 1998

by Julian Matthews, Asia BizTech Correspondent

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