The Islamic world may soon get a little more freedom when it comes to internet privileges, but how censored will the information they view become? SalamWeb, a Malaysian group, is working on creating a web experience that would allow Muslims access to community-vetted messaging, news, and browsing. The program is designed to restrict forbidden topics, such as pornography, gambling, drinking, prostitution, and pork-related advertisements.
— HalalFocus (@HALALFOCUS) January 19, 2019
Norhizam bin Abdul Kadir, managing director of fashion brand Mimpikita, said:
“The launch of this new suite of services is aligned with the Government’s spirit of inspiring an Islamic digital ecosystem, one that fosters the positive sharing of Islamic values. This will help play a part in building an Islamic Digital Economy with a balance between technology and maintaining a practical understanding of Malaysia’s needs.”
Combining Shariah Compliance with Technology
Fake and misleading news on social media networks like Facebook is already a challenge for internet users around the world, so how will SalamWeb’s program incorporate Shariah compliance with technical safeguards?
According to Halal Focus, SalamWeb’s browser is “Designed to optimise the Islamic way of life, the SalamWeb Browser features Qibla (prayer direction) compass, prayer timings, Salam News which is a custom news feed aggregated from verified news sources, and SalamChat, a localised chat function to connect like-minded individuals.”
…users can turn on their neighbors for practicing their faith…
SalamProtect is a content filter that will alert users on any inappropriate content. The users will then be given a choice to continue viewing the information or withdraw from it. Community-vetted content filters will allow users to mark each page as either appropriate, neutral, or inappropriate. This, the developers said, will help bring the community together as they strive for a safe and wholesome internet experience.
“Users’ input will be channelled to our backend and if there is a certain amount of feedback received that flags suspicious content, our team will investigate,” said Faisal Khalil, marketing director of SalamWeb.
Community Togetherness or Targeted Censorship?
There are a few questionable concerns here. For one, who will be on this “team” to investigate the validity of content suitable for Muslims? Will it be much like China’s controlled news, where officials decide what the public should and should not see? Will it be gender specific as well, making sure the women only have access to the information males deem appropriate?
Another concern is religious persecution. Will there be an app, much like the state-backed one in Indonesia, that allows consumers to “report groups practicing unrecognised faiths or unorthodox interpretations of Indonesia’s six officially recognised religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism”?
“Smart Pakem” is the tattle-tale app, which is available, free of charge, on Google Play. With this type of technology, users can turn on their neighbors for practicing their faith if it isn’t in compliance with the accepted religious beliefs of the region. Being accused of heresy is not a walk in the park, and people could be severely punished.
“The objective…is to provide easier access to information about the spread of beliefs in Indonesia, to educate the public and to prevent them from following doctrines of an individual or a group that are not in line with the regulations,” said Nirwan Nawawi, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.
Though currently only in Indonesia, how long before this, or other apps like it, start to appear around the world, including the U.S.? Bonar Tigor Naiposos of the Setara Institute human rights group said: “This is dangerous because if mainstream society doesn’t like [a group] they’ll report them through the application – this will create problems.”
Censorship and privacy laws may just become the next best way to spy on your neighbor, report people or groups you don’t like, and control what information the public can access. While greater access to the internet for Muslims around the world is an improvement, it may well lead to community diversity, with religious persecution soon to follow.