Apr 12th 2007 | BANGKOK AND ISTANBUL
From The Economist print edition
For Thais and Turks, shielding a revered figure from cyber-insults proves tricky
AT FIRST sight, anyway, it seems like one more case of a clumsy,
authoritarian government being wrong-footed by nimble creatures from
cyberspace who acknowledge no borders and can leap effortlessly over
almost any obstacle. YouTube, the website that dominates the market in
user-generated, online videos (or in plain language, a place where
almost anybody can post a film about almost anything) has been blocked
by Thailand’s military-backed government. The ban was imposed in a fit
of indignation over a 44-second clip that mocked the country’s monarch.
It was a crude bit of work, showing King Bhumibol Adulyadej with feet
over his face and mouth, an image certain to offend Thai Buddhists.
Given that last year’s coup in Bangkok was presented as an action
carried out in the name of the king, Thailand’s rulers have a big stake
in the sovereign’s prestige. Hence their demand to the California-based
site (bought last year by Google for $1.65 billion) to scrap the
offensive material; and their decision, when faced with YouTube’s
refusal, to block access to the whole site. “When they decide to
withdraw the clip, we’ll withdraw the ban,” snapped Sitthichai
Pookaiyaudom, the communications minister.
But if the aim was to shore up the law against lèse-majesté
(under which a Swiss man was jailed for ten years for defacing
portraits of the king and queen, only to be pardoned this week), it
backfired. Within days of the site being blocked in Thailand, the clip
was seen 16,000 times by people round the world. Then the clip was
removed (by its maker) but many others, also insulting to the king,
YouTube commented that the site had not broken American law, and
pointed out that it was replete with negative images of other leaders,
like George Bush. Some Thais reacted peevishly; they pointed out that
YouTube’s parent, Google, does co-operate with China’s authorities as
they block subversive material from the Chinese version of the search
engine. But quite a lot of Thais blamed the government for turning an
obscure bit of nonsense into a global free-speech issue. And Bangkok’s
youngsters, as internet-savvy as their counterparts all over the world,
rushed to view the anti-royalist footage on alternative providers.
To those who follow the politics of the internet, the story
instantly recalled one that unfolded in Turkey a few weeks earlier. An
Istanbul court told the newly privatised service provider, Turk
Telekom, to ban access to YouTube after it carried a video-clip,
submitted by a user with a Greek-sounding name, portraying Turkey’s
state founder, Kemal Ataturk, as a boastful, grotesque-looking
homosexual. The judge’s move followed a barrage of e-mails (220,000 in
a single day) that expressed outrage over the desecration of a revered
statesman. But within minutes of the ban, YouTube fans realised they
could still gain access to the site through other providers—and just as
in Thailand, a mood of indignation over insults to a sacrosanct figure
gave way (among some citizens) to a sense of anger that the authorities
had used sledgehammer tactics. “The ban shows that Turkey has not
caught up with the reality of modern technology,” said Cihat Selim, an
internet pundit. The Turkish tale, at least, has a happy-ish ending;
the ban was lifted after the controversial clip was removed.
YouTube says it interferes as little as possible with the material
on the site; but it does block “hate speech” and material that is
offensive on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation, as well
as extreme violence and explicit sex. (The latter rule was cited in
Brazil earlier this year when film of a model cavorting with her
boyfriend led to a block for several days—followed by a plethora of
One of Google’s regulation wonks, Andrew McLaughlin, said the firm
obeys the law wherever it operates—but given that it has no office or
staff in Thailand, it is not a Thai service or subject to Thai law.
Tim Wu, an internet expert at Columbia Law School in New York, says
sites like YouTube face huge problems if they wield editorial power,
and huge problems if they don’t. Wherever possible, they will stick to
the latter course, because as soon as they make any decision about
editorial issues they will risk accepting responsibility for the site’s
whole contents. At the moment, says Mr Wu, sites can say they are no
more responsible for the way their space is used than telephone
companies are for crimes discussed by users of their lines. The sites
would love to keep things as simple as that, but in a world of clashing
ideas about the limits of decency, blasphemy and dissent, that is going
to be very hard.
Nor will all government pressure on sites and providers have to do
with high politics or ancient traditions. Britain’s education minister,
Alan Johnson, said this week that internet sites had a “moral
obligation” to stop pupils posting videos that demean teachers or other
You block YouTube at your peril
Whoever posted the video on YouTube ridiculing King Bhumibol
Adulyadej of Thailand knew what he or she was doing. In Thai culture
and tradition, the king is genuinely revered, and the video insulted
him in ways that could only invite national outrage and precisely the
government reaction it got: Thailand banned access to YouTube.
This is not the first time Google’s popular video-sharing service
has been blocked from an entire society. Tehran blocked YouTube over,
among other things, Borat, failing to find anything funny in Sacha
Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Iran’s neighbor, Kazakhstan. In March a
Turkish court ordered YouTube blocked for carrying material deemed
insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish
state. In January India contemplated similar action over a clip of a
pole-dancing Mahatma Gandhi.
Whatever their reasons, governments worldwide are grappling with the
influence and perceived dangers of a medium that is compelling,
accessible, hip and wildly popular.
Alas, we are not talking just about YouTube here, but about the integrity of the Internet itself.
initiatives to guard against pornography, bigotry, terrorism and
anything that might damage the cultural fabric have consistently
morphed into campaigns covering so much more, and have therefore run up
against equally valid concern for free expression and access to
It is no longer just YouTube that is banned in Iran, for example.
Wikipedia is also on the blacklist, as is Amazon.com. In Thailand,
Internet censorship was becoming an issue even prior to the video of
Thais are in general agreement that the controversial clip insulted
the king. But what gives them pause about the wholesale blocking of
YouTube is the awareness that it is not the first site to be rendered
inaccessible in the kingdom, and it won’t likely be the last.
Some observers suspect that, for reasons beyond the monarchy and the
defense of Thai culture, YouTube was occasionally blocked as early as
January and as recently as March, though in both instances the
authorities denied doing anything.
Meanwhile, the recent blocking of political Web sites that the
country’s military rulers regard as too friendly to the deposed Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra recall government clampdowns against online
debates about the coup that toppled Thaksin in September.
On April 6, Article 19, the London-based organization monitoring
legislation that limits free expression worldwide, warned the Thai
public that the “Computer-Related Offenses Commission Act” being
drafted by a 25-member legislative panel has “serious implications” for
the Internet and for freedom of expression in Thailand.
Whenever online media are attacked or threatened, as in Thailand,
governments insist that a defense of culture is unavoidable and should
be understandable. Understandable is fair enough. But the oft-repeated
objective is invalidated by oft-repeated experience. The stated mission
of defending culture is elusive, if not deluded. For all their best
intentions, those who seek to control content in cyberspace have a
tendency to breed self-fulfilling fears.
The more you block, the more you invite cracks. The more you filter,
the better people become at going around obstacles. And the more you
ban, the more you create interest.
Governments say they at least have to try. Everybody else must simply make an effort to be sensitive to different cultures.
This, too, is a fair plea. It certainly does not help advocates of
freedom of expression to have on their side drunks, boors and those who
believe that the very suggestion that they need to be considerate is
tantamount to padlocking their lips.
An equally important lesson, however, is that governments, too, must
themselves understand the culture of the Internet and the global
generation that can neither grow nor compete without access to it.
Governments that fail to understand the futility of efforts to block
Internet access and put little faith in the public’s ability to consume
responsibly will only generate resentment and their own isolation in an
age of inevitable, borderless flow of information.
Roby Alampay is executive director of the Southeast Asian Press
Alliance, a network of media advocacy groups working for press freedom
in Southeast Asia.
Thailand persistent on on removal of YouTube clips
unblocks web forum, cautions criticism must be “within limits”; YouTube
offers to teach authorities to block individual videos rather than
Date: 12 April 2007
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
Type(s) of violation(s): censored, other
(SEAPA/IFEX) – The military-installed government in Thailand has
lifted a ban on a popular political chat room that was blocked over
concerns of “national security”, warning however that while the
administration remains tolerant of public criticism, it must be “within
limits” and should not damage “national security
On 11 April 2007, the Information and
Communications Technology Ministry (ICT) removed the block on the
“Ratchadamnoen” chat room on Pantip.com ( http://www.pantip.com/ ) upon securing the owner’s assurance that the forum will be censored for content deemed offensive to the king.
“We will increase the number of staff to watch the site for 24
hours a day,” Pantip.com founder and owner Wanchat Padungrat was quoted
as saying in a local report.
Even before it was blocked on 8 April, Pantip.com had been imposing
strict measures to ensure responsible comments, requiring posters to
register using their personal identity details to hold them accountable
for their words. The website voluntarily shut down its “Rajdamnoen”
chat room – seen as an important barometer of the people’s sentiment –
for two weeks after the September 2006 coup that ousted former Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as it was unable to cope with the
onslaught of comments.
Despite warning of “limits” in public criticism, ICT Minister
Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom reportedly said blocking websites was not his
policy. “I support freedom of expression,” he said, but adding the
caveat: “No websites will be banned as long as their contents are not
indecent or insulting to the monarchy.”
The ministry blocked the video-sharing website YouTube.com ( http://www.youtube.com/
) in Thailand on 4 April, over a single clip that mocked the king.
Although all remnants of the clip have been removed since 6 April, the
furore arising from the initial ban spawned a dozen copycat clips,
sparking fears of an escalating tit-for-tat response that will further
tarnish the monarchy.
YouTube has reportedly declined to remove the contentious videos,
instead offering to teach Thai authorities how to block individual
videos without banning the entire website.
Meanwhile, bereft of their usual political chat room on Pantip.com
for the past four days, regular users have had to seek refuge in other
political web boards, forcing the owners to be extra vigilant about
overly harsh postings.
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