Can you really get in trouble using WhatsApp in Malaysia?

So long as your common sense prevails, you should be fine

So the Internet is abuzz with news Malaysia is considering taking action against the admins of WhatsApp groups. It's just a proposal so far, but the real question is really, should you be worried?

There's a bright side to this

According to Deputy Minister of Communications and Multimedia Datuk Jailani Johari, the proposal is to take action against WhatsApp group admins who "failed to curb the spread of false information among members".

What law is it based on?

Apparently on the rather vague and (almost) all-encompassing section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which covers all 'improper use of network facilities or network service". Persons liable could face a fine not exceeding RM50,000 or a jail term not exceeding one year.

How has it been used?The law has been used to detain people for improper Tweets, Facebook posts and even comments on websites. In the latter case, however, instead of the commenter being punished, the website was held liable for allowing the comments to be posted in the first place. That's the reasoning behind going after WhatsApp admins, apparently.

Lawyer Syahredzan Johan disputed the appropriateness of the use of the law, saying that WhatsApp admins aren't actually on the level of company directors or website editor, with limited powers and responsibility. Not to mention a WhatsApp group is not a publication and you can't delete individual postings even if you're a WhatsApp group admin.

(Translation: This isn't accurate. WhatsApp admins do not have such responsibilities. The perpetrator should be liable, not the (WhatsApp group) admin)

WhatsApp messages are also encrypted so unless someone physically has access to your phone, the messages can't be read. Exceptions are if someone put a tracker on your phone or can somehow read or spy on your browser activity when you're using WhatsApp Web.

However, if someone screenshots your WhatsApp messages, they might then use it as 'proof' of your wrongdoing. That's where it gets a little murky.

Pro-tip: Don't be friends with anyone who screenshots your private texts. It's all too easy for online conversations to be misconstrued. If WhatsApp notifies you someone has screenshotted your conversation, maybe you shouldn't be friends. Except if it's your mom who doesn't know any better (hi, mom!) and just wants to save it for posterity's sake.

In summary, the proposal to go after WhatsApp admins is difficult to push through legally but be aware that screenshots of any questionable chat you make on your phone might still leave you liable. On the bright side, you can now spook those annoying people who keep sharing fake news by telling them "that might be illegal, you know." And look forward to chats free from links to dodgy websites. Remember, cute animal photos are perfectly legal and definitely won't get you in trouble. We think.