Unlike countries such as China, Iran or Syria which imposes strict Internet filtering, the Malaysian government has so far resisted on using of any forms of censorship, although the monopoly and subsequent control of local traditional media is a different matter altogether.
It is therefore quite understandable why the Internet has become a leading source of alternative information for many Malaysians, although the pledge not to censor was originally to spur growth in domestic information technology industries, according to OpenNet Initiative (ONI).
ONI, a collaborative partnership of three institutions to “investigate, expose and analyze Internet filtering and surveillance practices in a credible and non-partisan fashion”, also lists the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as one of the many Middle East countries that practice selective Internet filtering.
This prevalent scenario inadvertently highlights the following questions: what is deemed as inappropriate content, and who ultimately decide what is appropriate and what is not?
These are the uncertainties two technopreneurs have decided to tackle head on. Armed with a tagline, “We Let You Decide What to Censor”, Kerim Nu’man and Marwaa El Hassan have developed taqwa.me – a search engine that lets the public decide for themselves what is Halal and haram, and air their opinions and discuss them openly with fellow users.
“The idea of taqwa stemmed from being personally frustrated with blocked sites in the UAE,” said Melbourne-born Kerim, who came across many banned websites even though the content seemed innocent and inoffensive.
“This made us wonder, how did the authorities evaluate a particular website whether it falls within or outside the scope of Shariah?” he asked.
Trying not to reinvent the wheel, taqwa.me provides similar results as compared to other leading search engines, but with one distinct difference – results are accompanied with three buttons where users can rate the content as Halal (a heart button) or Haram (a mini skull button), or discuss the issue with others (a blue man button).
“We try to encourage discussion, openness, and freedom of speech, as we deter ourselves from dictating content. Our users determine if content is perceived as haram or halal socially, but scientifically or religiously it could hold an educational value to the user on whatever grounds,” he said.
“It’s a kind of crowd-sourced approach that enables everyday Islamic users to thrash out issues connected to Islam. Also, we don’t track or trace you, and we don’t keep your data unlike Google or Bing,” he said.
The website, which was launched in August last year, currently attracts about 50,000 hits a day from countries as diverse as Iran, Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Britain and Ukraine. Despite the initial reaction by some that the engine curtails free speech, Kerim assures that they are only censoring smut.
“The data we are actually censoring is porn; everything else is up to the user. If they come across something that is deemed inappropriate, it is up to them to do something about it,” he added.
Kerim urged all Muslim Internet users primarily, to give taqwa.me a test, to populate the results and at the same time contribute to make the Internet, and ultimately the world, a safer place for all, fitting their role as khalifahs (guardians) on earth.
“Muslims are amongst the heaviest social media users in the world, and many Islamic beliefs are very similar to Christians and Jews. So actually, the engine can be used by anyone. Sure they can turn on the filters in other search engines or use 3rd party filters, but if a user has the opportunity to simply click a button and at the same time, make a contribution for a better world, then why not?” he said.
“We have a responsibility and now, we have the tools to help clean up the Internet and make it a safer place for our kids and other Muslims worldwide. I think that is the maximum good one can do simply with a click of a button. It’s about simplicity, efficiency and acting responsibly,” he added.