DAP Parliamentary cyberbill working group established to consider amendments which should be proposed to the first batch of cyberbills in the current meeting of Parliament

by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Sunday): With the introduction of the first batch of cyberlaws, Malaysia stands at a very important crossroad in our national history because this constitutes a historic step in our transition into the Digital Era in the 21st century.

Although cyberspace is borderless, it cannot be a law-free zone. One of our greatest challenges which will decide whether Malaysia can successfully make the transition into the Information Society and take its rightful place among the front rank of nations in the 21st century is whether we can devise new legal structures and concepts that will afford due recognition to the rapid changes and the new realities that would be wrought by Information Technology to lay the basis for a civil and knowledge-based society.

DAP has embraced Information Technology not because the DAP is preparing to join the Barisan Nasional, but because on issues of national interest, the DAP is and had always been prepared to work in co-operation with other political parties, whether it be the Barisan Nasional or other opposition parties.

The DAP Central Executive Committee at its meeting this morning resolved to adopt "IT For All" as a national policy objective with the dual aim of ensuring that Malaysia make the quantum leap into the Digital Era and ensuring that there would be equitable IT development for all without creating a new disparity between "Information-rich" and "Information-poor".

This is one outcome of the three-point Party Reform movement launched at the end of 1995, which calls for “re-thinking of party policies, strategies and approaches”.

Today’s DAP Cyberbill Seminar in Kuala Lumpur will kick off a series of public cyberbill discussions in the country in the next ten days - namely Malacca on 19th, Penang on 20th, Ipoh on 21st and Johore Bahru on 22nd.

Another series, in Mandarin, on how IT can affect the quality of everyday life of Malaysians as well as on the cyberbills, would also be held at the same time, starting in Klang on 17th, Teluk Intan on 18th, Muar on 19th, Seremban on 23rd and Kuala Lumpur on 27th.

This is our contribution to the development of an Information Society - to increase public participation and raise IT-consciousness among the people.

In fact, all political parties and civic organisations should be organising seminars on the first batch of cyberbills before the Parliamentary Cyberbill Forum organised by the multi-party Parliamentary IT Committee, either on April 25 or 26 and the start of the debate on the cyberbills from April 28 onwards.

This is to ensure that there would be the fullest public participation in the shaping of the new Information Society we want to achieve in the new millennium. This is why the DAP has performed the national service of posting all the four cyberbills on the Internet - something which should have been done by the government.

The DAP has also formed a Parliamentary Working Group to consider amendments which should be presented to the first batch of cyberbills in the current meeting of Parliament. The four cyberbills have been assigned to four DAP MPs, who will initiate discussions with various interest groups, whether the industry, academicians, NGOs, consumers, computer users including students and other concerned Malaysians and to invite their views and ideas on how Malaysia can have the best cyberlaws in the world.

The assignment of Bills to DAP MPs is as follows: Computer Crimes Bill (Karpal Singh - MP for Jelutong), Digital Signature Bill (Lim Guan Eng - MP for Kota Melaka), Telemedicine Bill ( Dr. Tan Seng Giaw - MP for Kepong) and Copyright (Amendment) Bill (Tan Kok Wai - Cheras).

Before I proceed further, I want to especially welcome Mr. Letchumanan Ramatha, the Principal Assistant Secretary of the Ministry of Energy, Telecommunications and Posts, who is involved in the drafting of the Computer Crimes Bill and Digital Signature Bill, who will exchange views with participants at this Seminar and explain the official thinking behind these two cyberbills.

I thank the Minister for Energy, Telecommunications and Posts, Datuk Leo Moggie, for agreeing to send a Ministry representative to this Cyberbill Seminar, which marks a more open and participatory approach by the government. This is a good and encouraging sign, and it should not only apply to all future legislation but should be developed and deepened into a more democratic form of governance in Malaysia.

It is also a good sign that a multi-party Parliamentary IT Committee could be formed where MPs regardless of party could come together to promote IT development in Malaysia - and its first activity is the holding of a Parliamentary Cyberbill Forum in Parliament before the Dewan Rakyat begins debate on the cyberbills on April 28.

I have no hesitation in giving the government praise for these changes for the better, not because I am seeking a place in government - but because the DAP will give bouquets when commendations are due, just as we will not hesitate to throw brickbats when occasions require!

And now, after the bouquets, some brickbats!

It should be a matter of fundamental concern that there had been very little consumer or user perspective in the drafting of the first batch of cyberbills in the country, whether Computer Crimes Bill, the Digital Signature Bill, the Telemedicine Bill or the Copyright (Amendment) Bill.

This is not only highlighted in each bill, as there had been virtually no public participation or consultation in its drafting, but also by the absence of a Data Protection Bill to be in the first batch of cyberbills to give protection to the rights of ordinary citizens.

The time has come when those who use computers to handle personal information, whether government or the private sector, can no longer remain the sole judges of whether their own systems adequately safeguard privacy. There must be a law and a mechanism to regulate electronic or computerised data processing, where an individual have the right to access personal data about himself, to get data corrected or erased and to ensure that there is no misuse or abuse in the obtaining, holding and use of personal data.

I would urge the Cabinet to give a Data Protection Act topmost priority, and if it is not possible to present a Data Protection Bill in the current meeting of Parliament, it should be presented as the first bill in the July meeting of Parliament.

The lack of a consumer or user perspective can also be seen from the absence of legislative proposals to protect computer users from unfair trading practices whether from retailers, suppliers or manufacturers, whether in unfair pricing, shoddy products or atrocious after-sales service. Even Packard Bell, a prestigious brand-name product, is a disappointment - giving one-year guarantee when three-year guarantees is now becoming the norm.

Internet - the world’s biggest copying machine

The Computer Crimes Bill is one bill which had been drafted without any consumer or user-perspective, which explains why it is proposing to have the most severe penalties for computer crimes in the world.

Let me state from the outset that I support a Computer Crimes Act or a Computer Misuse Act, as the losses from computer-related crimes are potentially astronomical and legislative measures are needed to deal with computer-related crime in business and government, whether through the introduction of fraudulent records into a computer system, the alteration or destruction of computerized information or files and the stealing of financial instruments, data and other assets.

However, Malaysia’s Computer Crimes Law should not criminalize the majority of the computer users in the country or seek to lead the world in having the most severe penalties for similar offences.

The Computer Crimes Bill identifies three specific offences which are modelled after the UK Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Singapore Computer Misuse Act 1993 almost word for word, except for the penalities.

For instance, for the offence of unauthorised access to computer material, the penalty for UK is maximum of 2,000 pounds fine or six months’ jail or both, in Singapore it is $2,000 or two years’ jail or both, but in Malaysia, it is going to be RM50,000 or five years’ jail or both.

The Computer Crimes Bill will create a statutory presumption in Section 8 where any person having custody or control of any program, data or other information when he is not authorised to have it will be deemed to have obtained unauthorised access unless it is proven otherwise. The section criminalises the majority of the computer users in the country - including, I believe, journalists, government officials, MPs and Ministers who use computers.

This provision is the best illustration of why I say there is the lack of a consumer or user perspective in the Bill. I have referred to scores of Computer Crimes Laws in the United States, but I have not seen such a section whether in the United States or some other countries I had checked.

There should be a vigorous and robust debate in the country as to whether Malaysia needs to have the most severe penalties in the world for computer crimes and a section which criminalises the majority of the computer users in the country, which will be a major setback to raise IT-consciousness among Malaysians.

Much is written and spoken on the subject of software piracy - the producing and supplying of computer programs which infringe copyright in an original work, which is estimated to have caused world-wide losses of over US$10 billion.

While not condoning software piracy, we must see this problem in its perspective, which is how to reconcile the claims of copyright owner and legitimate user.

It has been suggested for instance that 13 unauthorised copies are made of every computer game. As with estimates of the scale of computer crime, these calculations are based on particular sets of definitions and assumptions which may be open to challenge. If software piracy could be stopped overnight, it seems unlikely that the sales of computer games would rise thirteen-fold. Indeed, it might be argued that, deprived of the possibility of obtaining cheap software, some potential users would decide not to buy a computer.

The problem of piracy however is not unique to computers. In almost every area of copyright, technological developments are making it easier for copyright infringement to occur. The ubiquitous photocopier makes everyone a potential copyright infringer to an extent undreamed of twenty or even ten years ago.

In fact, the producers of computer programs are more vulnerable to those who wish to copy their works than most other copyright owners. Where devices such as photocopiers or cassette recorders are used to copy a protected work, the copy will be of inferior quality to the original. This is not the case with computer programs, as because of the digital nature, every copy of a program will be identical to the original. The fiftieth or 100th generation copy will be identical to the original.

In fact, the Internet has been described as the world’s biggest copying machine. Copyright laws based on national boundaries are irrelevant in the borderless world of the Internet - a giant copying machine where anything from music to software can be duplicated and distributed at the click of the mouse.

I hope that the first DAP Cyberbill Seminar would be fruitful and productive and generate ideas which could be used to make the first batch of cyberlaws in the country more in tune with the needs of the users and consumers in Malaysia.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong