Governments must understand the culture of the Internet and the global generation that can neither grow nor compete without access to it.
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. Teheran blocked YouTube over, among other things, Borat, failing to find anything funny in Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Iran’s neighbour, 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.
State 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 information.
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 the king. 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 defence 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.
On April 6, Article 19, the London-based organisation monitoring legislation that limits free expression worldwide, warned the Thai public that the “Computer-Related Offences 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 defence 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. – c. 2007 I.H.T
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