Friday, August 31, 2007

Thailand's battle with youtube is finally over, but the freedom of speech war rages on

The battle is finally over and there are no winners. On one side, Thailand has once again been exposed as run by anachronistic bureaucrats, with little or no understanding of the technology they manage or the psyche of their own nation's young. In the other corner, youtube has lost Thai customers for many months.

It all started when a user with a Thai sounding name from America posted a bad, offensive and crudely edited video that was highly insulting to Thailand's king. Thailand's MICT (Ministry for Information and Communication Technology) immediately blocked the site and demanded youtube remove the clip.

Youtube staff initially refused, citing freedom of speech. Later, they reneged and agreed to remove the video although due to technical glitches the very first frame was still visible. Sadly, the google staff failed to understand just how pathetic Thailand's military junta can be and accidentally caused them loss of face by offering to "educate" MICT on how to block specific videos instead of an entire site.

Red faced, MICT continued to block the site and played up nationalistic sentiment by branding youtube as "bullying a small country like Thailand". Yes, that would be the military junta who raped democracy accusing the entrepreneur google group - who donate millions of dollars into poverty relief projects - of 'bullying'. MICT also "demanded" that the American ISP company "reveal" the identity of the user who had posted the video and, best of all, threatened to make their lese majeste laws extra territorial (i.e. applicable to anyone in any country).

Of course, while all this propaganda was going on, Thais were denied access to the site. A message would appear on screen saying the site was "a threat to national security". Meanwhile any user based in any other country could view the trashy video, and its viewer rating increased rapidly.

The propaganda continued. Thailand's MICT threatened to sue youtube. Various other web sites fell under the censor despite MICT chairman Sittichai stating his team had invoked far less censorship than its predecessor. Appearing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Sittichai promised that youtube would return to Thailand in one week. He announced that he had requested new legislation that all internet censorship would require a court injunction. When confronted with a FACTTHAI reporter who produced reams of paper that listed the name of each web site blocked by MICT, Sittichai declared the list to be "wrong". That night, most difficult and critical questions were fired at Sittichai by fellow Thais.

Nothing changed. Youtube, anti - coup sites and some discussion forums remained blocked. After several weeks, the blocking message changed. It seemed that (perhaps to save face) the MICT requested legislation had indeed come into effect and MICT were no longer blocking web sites but now the censorship was (ahem) 'voluntary' censorship coming from the ISP's themselves!!! In my case the censorship was enforced by TOT, a state telecom company who happen to have army general Saprang as their chairman.

But just as I had given up on my sinful wish to see the questions posed to the candidates for American presidency or the blunder made at the Miss Teen USA parade by Lauren Caitlin Upton , my dreams were answered as youtube magically reappeared. It seems youtube (not MICT) designed new software systems to filter offensive material.

Still, nobody has come out looking good. The MICT and the entire junta have exposed their hypocritical and outmoded way of thinking. The junta are so used to censoring and intimidating anyone who disagrees with their view, they had no method of communication or debate with an agency they could not control.

And while youtube is the most prominent example, it is far from isolated. MICT (or rather now "voluntary" censorship by ISP's) is huge. Web sites can be blocked for any number of reasons, all of which are classed as "a threat to national security". Midnight University, a chat forum for Thai students, was closed down after it was critical of the coup in Thailand. Many sites remain blocked and others are falling victim to the censors each day.

Rather than articulating the feelings and passion of the Thai people, MICT responds to offensive content like a child sticking his fingers in his ears when he hears a noise he doesn't like. And by labelling google as "bullies" the junta made a big error. Google are renowned pioneers of charitable research. The irony of a junta in a developing country labelling google as "bullies" was not lost on onlookers. Neither was the dual irony of MICT's threat to enforce lese majeste laws worldwide after their own protests that people worldwide should respect Thai laws and culture.

The Nation (or maybe it was the Bangkok Post, I forget) also did not escape blame. Their cartoonist created a picture with an internet user being shouted at by a monster on the monitor screen. The monster was shouting something like: "I'm the WESTERN concept of freedom of speech! What that means is that I'm just here to be OFFENSIVE and VULGAR! You should admire me".

That cartoonist should look at himself. Would he have a job in a dynamic English language media industry in Thailand if it were not for "western" influence? Personally, I found his cartoon offensive on that partcular day. The difference is that I would never dream of trying to stop other people seeing it just because it upset me. Freedom of speech does include the right to say something others might not like to hear.

Of course, we should make critical comments with reason and articulation, something the youtube clip maker did not do. The video was disgraceful and designed to shock. But what I've always said about shock merchants is that they thrive and bank on attention to their actions. If I see a video highly offensive to the Queen of England, I would say "The person who made this is obviously an uneducated idiot who should be grateful he lives in a country where he can express his feelings" and forget it. If I made a great big protest about the video, threatened to sue the ISP and the hosting company and tried to enforce my own English laws on internet users in Somalia then I would be effectively drawing great attention to an unworthy internet clip.



It's worth pointing out too, that "freedom of speech" is not a "western" ideal simply because it (arguably) originated in the west. Freedom of speech is a wonderful concept that allows us to employ critical thinking, which is crucial to academic progress and therefore, the development and well being of a country.


Imagine this experiment: you take two groups of students who are all trained in economics. To the first group you say "I want you to design an economic model to aid the entire nation. However, you must ONLY think about the KEYNESIAN model. You are NOT allowed to criticise this model! You are BARRED from viewing information or statistics on welfare economics! Now go and do your best." To the second group you say simply: "Study what you like. Feel free to weigh up the merits and drawbacks of each model." Which group will produce the better model? Why?



I love Thailand. My son is Thai. But sometimes I wonder if Thai people really understand that in many ways, they are facing a culture clash. They want to be recognised as a major figure internationally. They want FTA's , Premier League football, big time cinema and all the comforts of modern technology and a free market. On the other hand, they also want to keep their traditional values and identity which is great and admirable. However, such values cannot be enforced on others , nor should they be pushed on all Thais without giving them the right to decide for themselves.

Like I said before , freedom of speech does not include freedom to shout "fire" in a theatre, but it does include the right to say things we sometimes don't like to hear.

Restrictions on freedom of speech are simply a form a thought control and involve a huge amount of power. Thailand must accept that if it wants to be a fore - player in the modern world, it must at least accept that other nations allow freedom of speech.

What's more, Thailand's powers that be should perhaps consider allowing Thai people to decide for themselves what is allowed to be said and thought about, rather than employing themselves as moral guardians and thought police for millions of people who never invited them to do so.

1 comment:

aurix said...

great post. thank you.