The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

Editorial: Government jumps the gun on internet freedoms

Sunday, 19 February 2017, 09:45 Last update: about 3 years ago

In its headlong rush to defuse the rather nasty situation created by Minister and Labour Party Deputy Leader Chris Cardona when he took the utterly draconian move of having a garnishee order imposed on a journalist before proceedings in libel cased he filed had even begun, the government has well and truly jumped the gun on internet freedoms.

From the outset, it should be made clear that this newspaper should not have any problem with registering its website under the new law. This publishing house’s internet portal certainly falls under the proposed law’s definition of "any web-based news service or other web-based service relating to news or current affairs that operates from Malta or in respect of which editorial decisions are taken in Malta”.

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We have always fallen under the remit of the Press Act and this definition does not change our status in any way, shape or form. The problem arises when it comes to the countless other websites operated by Maltese nationals or companies or blogs that most of the time do not delve into news, but which may do so from time to time.

Will they will be scared of offering an opinion on current events, even on a single occasion? We think they would be and if anyone is dissuaded from making their opinions on current affairs public online, the internet’s freedom of speech would have been effectively curtailed if not suppressed.

For such people, the definition in the law is far too vague and should the law as it stands come into force, many people out there will be forced to think twice before commenting on current affairs of any sort.

We also fail to see why the online world has been brought into the act in such a way when the current Press Act already recognises libellous content in the online world.

Not only that, but such people will also think twice about even setting up or continuing with their website activities, lest they fall foul of the proposed rule of having to place themselves on the ‘Media Register’ because if they do not do so and at some point down the line are construed as being a ‘web-based service relating to news or current affairs’, they would face a fine of €1,000.

Comparisons have been made to Russia’s so-called ‘Blogger’s Law’, and rightly so. This new proposed Bill in many ways gives rise to a new internet police state for anyone in Malta with any kind of website, and any kind of opinion they may care to express at some point.

This is not to say that the Media and Defamation Act Bill does not have its positive points. It does. And foremost among those positives are the removal of criminal libel, an archaic practice that has no place in a modern society.

But as with many laws, the implications are far-reaching and the threat here is a direct one to the kind of freedom of speech that the internet and social media have engendered in today’s society.

And by rushing into this new law with its apparent crackdown on those who use the internet as a means of expressing their inalienable right to an opinion, the government has well and truly put the cart before the horse.

That is because one could be forgiven for having forgotten that the country has been awaiting the passage of the Digital Rights Bill that was first proposed by the last government back in 2012 at the height of the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) controversy and the accompanying protests in Malta. It was proposed again in 2014 but had been on the shelf gathering dust since then.

That Bill proposed amending the Constitution itself to provide for unhindered access to the internet, the right to information and freedom of expression, and the right to decide what information to exchange on the internet.

Before stepping into no man’s land and tampering with the internet’s inherent and basic freedoms, the government should really have seen to the Digital Rights Bill. But in so doing the government has gone into an area that few governments – save for the likes of the Russians and Chinese – have dared to tread.

Given the vast importance that the internet has on practically everyone’s life in this new connected day and age – and perhaps especially in Malta given its enormous internet penetration rates – the move could lead to civil protests on a massive scale. We wait to see what the still-to-be-held public consultation on this new law will yield, and how the government will respond to the public’s feedback.

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