Wednesday, June 27, 2007
An evening with the man who banned youtube
To summarise my friend Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom in one word is a truly impossible task, but if forced to do so I would have to go with "bi-polar".
The man responsible for blocking one of the Internet's most popular web sites cuts a sober, almost sombre figure as he takes the stage at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and begins to introduce himself.
The decorated professor cracks a series of self-effacing jokes that win favour with the farang dominated audience. Sitthichai waxes lightheartedly over his educational background, achievements in engineering and family life whilst jesting over his sex life, lack of hair, and most notably, Thai politicians and his own lack of ability at his current role.
Like most visitors I was caught off guard and somewhat disarmed by his seemingly genuinely amicable, almost innocent manner. Was this truly the man who had incurred so much criticism for banning web sites, describing the Internet as "not an exciting tool" and demanding that "Thailand should build its own computers to be truly proud"? Indeed it was.
As the night started in a friendly manner, Sitthichai dropped plenty of compliments to his hosts and reminded us that "I was warned it would be a tough night, I hope you will live up to it". So did I.
The questions began gently, as Sitticahi breezed over a question about the recent resignation of a TOT official and his allegation that military officials had demanded TOT fund a military project "It could have saved many lives" was Sitthichai's easy 'get out' clause on that one.
But before long, along came a reporter from my favourite paper, The Nation. "I'm sorry I address you only as 'Khun' and not 'Minister' but I can't acknowledge an illegitimate regime" began the reporter as he went on to question the anomaly between the number of web sites blocked as claimed by MICT, and the far higher figure quoted by the web site of my buddies facthai.com.
Sittichai claimed the facthai figures were old and inaccurate and pledged to allow the reporter to check for himself. The mood remained serene, but not for long.
Step forward Kitty from BK magazine. Kitty posed the question many had been waiting for: "There's so much more to youtube than a few offensive videos and there's more to the Internet than golf scores, what gives you the right to block it?".
Buoyed by his crowd pleasing jokes, Sitthichai made a misjudgement as quipped to young Kitty "When you grow up, you'll understand". Unfazed, Kitty replied: "Why do you have to make deemening jokes about me , or women or people's looks all the time?" to a round of applause from sections of the audience including me.
It had a notable effect on Sitthichai as - to his credit - he made a sincere apology. The crowd now seemed not quite so warm to him and he began to answer questions with more depth and seriousness. He explained "If I didn't block youtube, I'd be dead. I'd be lynched by the people" , before going on to pledge that "hopefully" youtube would be accessible within two weeks as Google had agreed to block individual offensive videos. When pinned for a promise by Kitty, who asked him four times over "What does 'hopefully' mean?", he said he would propose it to his cabinet next week.
Still the hostile questions were not done. A member of faccthai bravely presented Sitthichai with a list of blocked web sites taken from MICT apparently without their knowledge. The minister repeated his earlier claim that the list was old and outmoded.
The night went on with more lively and provocative questions. Sitthichai confessed that although his group claim to be more democratic than Thaksin's, they had not actually unblocked any of the fourteen thousand sites blocked by their predecessors. However, he went on record as saying he had proposed a bill that would forbid any government group to block web sites, in future it would have to be blocked by a court order.
Sitthichai also confirmed he owned no less than three hundred and twenty two rifles, and he "didn't care" which government came in after him. He was "not aware" of any online gambling sites but he did hope to see a fairer playing field for Internet and communications providers in Thailand. Throughout the night, Sitthichai confessed he didn't believe he was a good politician and he didn't feel it was his calling in life. He was an engineer and as such he believed in critical thinking and the pursuit of truth.
By the end of the night Sitthichai had indeed been met with a lot of questions and, to his credit, he ducked very few of them. As he repeated his apology to anyone that had been offended by his quips, the MICT minister took his exit and received a round of applause for his appearance.
Still, despite the provocative and lively questions fired throughout the evening, I felt few minds had been changed. From a personal point of view there was only one question that remained unasked: If Sitthichai so disliked politics, felt so strongly that it wasn't what he was good at and blocked web sites often against his own principles, why did the maverick scientist join hands with the junta in the first place?
Perhaps we'll never know.