(Dewan Rakyat, Monday): The Communications and Multimedia Bill 1998 can probably be described as the cornerstone of all the cyberbills for Malaysia as it is the catchall and overall legislative policy document for the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and the push for Malaysia's digital future. Once termed the Multimedia Convergence Bill, the bill has been renamed to encompass the two acts it will repeal, the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act.
Let me first take an overview of the proposals of the Bill before I deal with the policy aspects of the Bill.
The Bill sets standards and general policy for communications in the new multimedia based industries which will sprout and act as a guiding document in the digital age. What I like about the bill is that it takes a hands off approach and defers initial codes of conduct to self-regulatory industry specific forums. This allows industry to regulate itself, but leaves room for the government to step in if this fails to happen. This influence is wielded by the new Multimedia and Communications Commission which will act as a regulatory and enforcement body for this Bill.
I welcome in particular section 3 (3) of the Bill which reads "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet". By getting this over with early, the government is keeping its promise laid down in the MSC Bill of Guarantees not to impose filtering of Internet delivered content. By specifically stating so in the law of the land, this further cements the principal freedoms of the electronic medium while other articles call for industry self regulation to ensure that cultural needs are adhered to. Nevertheless, this is a good start to the legislation, although I will have more to say about the issue of no censorship on the Internet.
This bill has also a provision missing in prior cyberbill legislation which introduces an Appeal Tribunal consisting of a Judge of the High Court and another two to four members from the communications and multimedia, engineering, legal, finance and public administration fraternities. The Appeal tribunal will serve as arbitrators and decision makers for all manners of licensing or code of conduct disputes under the bill.
Additionally, to prevent conflicts of interests, members appointed to this Tribunal would be required to disclose all interests in cases brought before it. Failure to do so would constitute an offence. This hopefully would ensure fair play in appeals brought before the tribunal.
Continuing the tradition imposed in both the Telecommunications Act
the Broadcasting Act, this bill requires licenses for information and electronic services delivered over the ether and over cable, be it electrical power, digital or analog circuits. These licenses, granted as individual or class licenses, would serve to allow the licensee authority to operate a network service, applications service or content service under the bill.
However, unlike the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts, this bill
will introduce the formation of voluntary industry codes to be adhered to by participants in the industry. This move to encourage self-regulation of the medium would to an extent introduce real-world regulation as well as market driven codes of conduct. This would contribute to greater efficiency and would be beneficial to the accelerated growth as well as the fast paced nature of the telecommunications and internet industries.
The codes of conduct will be drawn up by industry forums appointed by the Multimedia and Communications Commission. Adherence to this code could also be used by industry participants as a measure of defence against civil proceedings. To ensure fairplay, the bill mandates the Commission to reject a particular code if it has not been submitted to peer review and public approval. This will ensure that no one industry forum could dominate by creating codes which only favour itself. Nevertheless, I feel that an additional requirement that non-members of the forum should also be allowed to submit proposed modifications and additions to this code during its design phase. Additionally, the bill needs to ensure that participation as forum members is not restrictive financially or by other non-financial standards so as to allow a cross-section of the industry and the user base to be involved in this self-regulation. This step at self-regulation is indeed a pioneer step globally and the drafters of the bill should be commended for its inclusion.
As the communications and multimedia industry we are legislating here changes on a scale never experienced before, rules and regulations can become outdated pretty fast. That is why it is very refreshing to notice that the bill requires the Commission to review all regulations and rules outstanding every three years. This will ensure up-to-date regulations are made to guide industry actions as well as to allow us to make the most of the flexibility offered to us.
Included in the bill are provisions which explicity prevent monopolistic practices and deny incumbents the clout to squeeze their competitors out of the market.
As a preemptive strike on monopolistic practices, these provisions enshrined in Chapter 2 of Part VI would require network service providers to provide the same tariff rates and quality of service to other competitors as they would to their own services. In real world analogy, this would mean that Telekom Malaysia would have to provide the same tariff rate and quality of service seen on its 1515 TMNet calls to the other ISPs in Malaysia, including Jaring.
Additionally, players in industry are not allowed to engage in activites which provide for rate fixing, market sharing, organising boycotts of providers and vendors. Also, service providers are prevented from forcing consumers to acquire miscellaneous services in addition to the primary service. This is good for consumers as it preempts rate fixing, unfair practices and forced buying of service bundles.
While most of the licensing requirements under this bill is a carry over from the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts, an additional service seems to be included for mandatory licensing. This class of service, termed content applications service provision, is defined vaguely enough to include World Wide Web delivered content.
As such, it is possible that an intrepretation of the Act would require web delivered content to be licensed. Would this mean that all web sites in Malaysia would need to obtain ministry approval before going online ? If the answer is yes, then this surely is a step backward and out of place in this bill which seems to promote open competition and self-regulation. Applications service providers also fall under this licensing scheme. Once again, I should think that this should not be licensed lest we stunt the growth of network-centric applications which will be the driving force behind the Multimedia Super Corridor.
I welcome the provision in the bill which explicitly states that provision of content with intent to annoy, harras, threaten or abuse any person is strictly prohibited. Under many definitions, spam or Unsolicited Commercial Email and Unsolicited Bulk Email could be construed as annoying or harassing the receiver. Mayhaps spam fighters would now have legal recourse to challenge this vile behaviour as it carries with it a fine not exceeding RM50,000 and/or one year free board and lodging courtesy of His Majesty's Government.
Also, unauthorised wire tapping has also been explicitly defined as an offence under the bill. Would this mean that employers who are now illicitly reading their employees emails would be committing an offence ? Can the Minister give an answer to this in his summing up?
All in all, I would say that with a few exceptions - especially the vague requirements of licensing of internet delivered content and applications - the Communications and Multimedia Bill 1998 is a very good piece of legislation and I commend the Minister for Energy, Telecommunications and Posts, Datuk Leo Moggie, for a good job done in introducing a bill to provide the framework to promote the IT industry in Malaysia.
The Bill does allow for unrestricted growth of the industry with minimal government involvement. Most importantly, it calls for greater self-regulation, something which Malaysian industry should have started by itself a long time ago. Nevertheless, it is never too late to start and it would be interesting to see the jockeying of entities as they lobby to be the selected industry forums.
Additionally, it should also be time for Internet and telecoms users of Malaysia to form their own representative body as the bill allows for user and consumer forums. Perhaps the once-hyped MY-ISOC - The Malaysian Internet Society - could be revived to serve as the consumer forum for the Internet.
This Bill provides a good basis for a bright digital future for Malaysia.
There is more controversy however when we debate the public policy issues of the national information technology agenda, as legislative framework is one thing while the promotion a knowledge society involving and committing all Malaysian individuals and communities to suceed to leapfrog into the digital era is another matter altogether.
It was during the INFOTECH Malaysia ’96 Conference on 19th December 1996, that the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad launched the National IT Agenda (NITA) which set the theme of "Turning Ripples Into Tidal Waves" as a national framework for all sectors in the economy to work together in realising the Vision 2020 aspiration of creating an information-rich and civil society.
Eighteen months have passed which is a long time in the field of Information Technology, and there should have been a full assessment of progress made in the National IT Agenda. In any such assessment, the most question to ask is whether the NITA has become the agenda of all Malaysians, committing and involving all Malaysians at all levels of society, or whether it is a subject dealt with at stratospheric levels by those involved with IT in government, industry and academia.
The NITA was never debated in Parliament and I dare say that if Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament were asked to explain the NITA, very few would have any notion about it. At most, they will only be able to talk about the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), as if IT and MSC are synonymous and the National IT Agenda is nothing more than about promoting MSC.
It has been said that a human year is about five Internet years, and this would mean that we have lost over seven Internet years since the NITA was announced by the Prime Minister without a serious national follow-up by all sectors of the Malaysian sector.
I believe that the biggest defect about the national IT development in the country is the lack of a coherent and integrated National IT policy and strategy based on a national consensus about the importance of Malaysia making the transition to the Information and Knowledge Society, that IT is not just about technology or commercial considerations but how to improve the quality of life of all Malaysians.
The Internet, for instance, is a powerful tool, not a solution. Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.
In the ultimate analysis, the IT revolution must be about people, how it would completely change the way people work, live, learn and play, and not about the power of microprocessors or bandwidths. This is why any National IT Policy, Strategy and Plan must be people-centred and not project-centred or MSC-centred.
Although the government embraced IT in May 1993 when it set up the National Information Technology Council to be its think-tank and adviser in the co-ordination and leadership in the planning and management of IT as a strategic tool for national socio-economic development, are our people, our institutions and most of our companies really prepared for the new information technologies.
For over two years in Parliament, I had called on the government to be a model user of Information Technology to provide more efficient, cost-effective and responsive services to the public.
On January 5 this year, I wanted to send an Open Letter to all Cabinet Ministers before their first 1998 Cabinet meeting on the 15 areas and measures which they should give priority in addressing the nation’s worst economic crisis, and when I asked my office to email the Open Letter to the Cabinet Ministers, I was surprised to be told by my office, after a lot of surfing, that only the email address of six Cabinet Ministers could be found.
I had publicly criticised the Ministers for their failure to keep up with the IT times, but not to much effect. In April this year, in preparing for the I INFOTECH Malaysia ‘98 Conference, a search could only uncover the email address of less than ten Cabinet Ministers, although most of their photographs were available on Internet.