Indonesia’s threat to ban X for allowing porn may hurt digital economy and be ineffective: Experts


X said it will now formally allow users to post, view and share adult nudity and consensual sexual content, as long as it is clearly labelled as such. - AFP

JAKARTA: A familiar approach was floated by Indonesia when news broke about social platform X’s decision to officially allow pornographic content: Ban and block it.

Should this happen, X will join the list of “problematic” online platforms and sites Indonesia has previously blocked, including social news website and forum Reddit, gaming marketplace Steam and payments solution PayPal.

But in an age of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other workarounds, simply disallowing access to parts of the internet might not be effective in getting Indonesians to stay away from them, said experts, who advocated more robust internet safety education.

In an update on its website on June 3, X said users “should be able to create, distribute, and consume material related to sexual themes as long as it is consensually produced and distributed”.

The San Francisco-based company said it will now formally allow users to post, view and share adult nudity and consensual sexual content, as long as it is clearly labelled as such. The move makes official a policy already in place when the platform was known as Twitter, before billionaire Elon Musk purchased it in 2022.

Indonesia’s Communications and Informatics Minister Budi Arie Setiadi said on June 5 that X has to abide by the country’s laws, which prohibit the dissemination of pornographic content, if it does not want to be sanctioned or banned.

On June 10, he said that he had sent a letter to X conveying his concerns, and reiterated that Indonesia will block access to the platform if it displays such content. There has been no official response from X to the minister so far.

There are more than 24 million accounts in Indonesia using X, according to estimates from global data gathering platform Statista, making it among the nations with the highest numbers. That does not necessarily correlate to the number of X users, as some may have multiple accounts. Indonesia’s population stands at more than 270 million.

Dr A’an Suryana from the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute believes what is likely to happen is a “partial ban”, where some features might not be accessible to users in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country that embraces conservative values.

“Regardless of whether it is a partial or full ban of X, the practice has been common. The government has regularly banned internet platforms or websites due to various reasons,” said Dr A’an, who is a visiting fellow at the institute’s regional social and cultural studies programme.

“This includes being held responsible for promoting pornographic content, for bringing harm to small-scale and medium enterprises, for failing to prevent users from using the platforms to incite religious hatred,” he told The Straits Times.

In 2014, amid a similar online porn crackdown, social networking site Reddit and video-sharing platform Vimeo were blocked in Indonesia, and still are.

In 2017, messaging platform Telegram joined the list, as it was being used to spread “radical and terrorist propaganda”.

Telegram was unblocked about a month later after it agreed to work on removing the content in question. And in 2020, Indonesia banned online payment platform PayPal, Yahoo’s local website, and digital distribution platform Steam for failing to adhere to some of its user protection policies, but lifted the bans shortly after pushback from the public.

Banning has worked in some cases, and Dr A’an highlighted how it has seen some success in countering online gambling. In the 11 months to May, he said Indonesia had banned 1.9 million pieces of content related to online gambling.

“Had the Ministry (of Communications and Informatics) not been imposing a tough policy on online gambling, many more people would have been exposed to online gambling,” said Dr A’an.

“The situation also applies to the dissemination of pornographic content. Had the ministry not been diligent in banning pornographic sites, many more people would have been exposed.”

Pradipa Rasidi, from the digital rights and research department of non-governmental organisation EngageMedia, said that a complete ban of X is unlikely, given how it is something that the government uses to disseminate information.

“Realistically, it’s not a viable move for Indonesia to block Twitter,” said Pradipa, who is a project coordinator in his department. “It is also something that government supporters and the government itself use to create a positive public image.”

A possible future for X in Indonesia would be an arrangement under which the government can submit “takedown requests” to remove unwanted content from Twitter, he added.

Indonesia has banned thousands of adult sites before, and being “anti-pornography” is a common cause among different political groups in Indonesia, said Muhammad Habib Abiyan Dzakwan from Indonesian think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

However, banning platforms as a “blanket” approach to address thorny issues stands to hurt Indonesia’s chances of becoming the competitive and digital economy it wants to be, added Habib.

“We will expect overwhelming pushback and resistance from the users,” he said. “I think we have witnessed it in the case of PayPal. The ban was only sustained for less than a week after full pressure exerted by the public on the Ministry of Communications and Informatics.”

Habib noted how average Indonesians enjoy connecting with one another on X, and even find job opportunities on the platform.

“Unemployment has been a main issue in Indonesia’s society, with news outlets regularly running stories about how many in the country cannot find work,” he added.

As at August 2023, Indonesia’s general unemployment rate was 5.3 per cent, with 7.9 million jobless people out of a workforce of 147.7 million, according to Statistics Indonesia. The unemployment rate of those aged 15 to 24 was much higher, at 19.4 per cent.

No matter the restrictions, Indonesians have found and will continue to find ways to access the content they want, experts say. Many users, for instance, continue to access Reddit through VPNs or other means now, and the local r/indonesia subreddit page has more than 550,000 members.

If the government wants to address the problem of unfiltered access to pornography, gambling or even other online harms like fake news, a whole-of-society effort is needed, said Dr A’an.

For example, law enforcement needs to work with places like schools to implement programmes and teach students to be more aware of harmful content online.

Continuously exerting control and banning platforms runs the risk of making Indonesia an isolated country, and what should instead be done is to provide incentives for platforms to focus more on reducing negative and harmful content, said Habib.

“Banning any digital platform must be placed as our last resort and pursued only if it endangers national security or cyber security of individual Indonesians,” he added. - The Straits Times/ANN

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