Should the government spam the people?

Like many Malaysians I’ve been getting almost daily messages from the National Security Council (MKN) and other government agencies about the Covid-19 situation. I understand that we are in an emergency situation and the government might find the need to inform the public through all available means about urgent measures that need to be observed 

Still, as a citizen of a free country, I’d like to have the right to decide who can and cannot send me text messages. Besides, 51 messages in less than 5 weeks feels like harassment more than anything else and I want out.

On its website, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) defines spam as “electronic ‘junk mail’ – messages sent to a person’s mobile phone that they have not consented to receive.” Can unsolicited messages from MKN and other agencies then be deemed as spam?

MCMC advises those who receive spam on their mobile phones through short codes to report the matter; but what do you do when the government itself is spamming you by sending you unwanted messages?  What is worse, it is not possible to respond to them and neither can their messages be blocked.

And now it seems that the messages are not just about issues related to the MCO; one message that came recently advertised a special interview with the prime minister on TV. What next? Is this going to become a regular way for the government to communicate with the people? Who exactly controls this channel of communications? Who decides how it is used? Can citizens opt out of it?

As new technologies for mass surveillance, control and the dissemination of information become available, civil society must ensure that there is transparency and accountability; that new technologies will be deployed in ways that are consistent with our democracy. If we are not careful, there is a very real danger that we might quickly find ourselves in a PRC-type police surveillance state where government messaging becomes stifling. We should take nothing for granted especially with a backdoor government in power.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 26th April 2020]

Published by Dennis Ignatius

Passionate Malaysian | Former Ambassador and career diplomat | Political affairs columnist | Human rights and international affairs commentator

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