Was a piece submitted to Harvard Law Faculty’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s call for essays a while back. It failed to make the cut, but the recent Tumblr debacle brought this back to mind. It’s eerie how an old piece could suddenly be all-relevant again. However, do note that due to the discrepancy between the time it was written and published here, I ought to make some updates, as noted below. Ipo-chan image is the creation of Rouzille Erzabalna of the Spring Roll circle.
It was a bit into the afternoon when an email came from a former colleague overseas, informing me about his newest short movie on the search for planets outside our solar system. Trying to access the video, hosted at Vimeo, quickly prompted a familiar red-on-white page: “Forbidden site cannot be accessed from this network, indicated to contain pornography, gambling, racism, phishing, or proxy.” Scolding myself for not doing so earlier, I activated VPN software and proceeded to watch the movie.
The scene is not foreign to anyone who has used the Internet in Indonesia. The censorship system, now known as ‘Internet Positif’ or ‘Trust+’ is a result of small changes build up over the years. Fitna, a short film by Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders painting Islam as a threat to Western society, went live in Youtube in 2008 1. It was unsure who discovered the video first, but the news began to spread in media and outraged Indonesian citizens (who are mainly composed of Muslims), causing the government to attempt legal actions against the domains that hosted the content2. The Internet was just becoming common amongst Indonesian urban dwellers during that time, and the incident calmed down after several weeks. However, eyes were opened. The government began to seek into the mazes of the internet and debates whether it was worthy to pursue lawmaking in this new area, and conservative religious groups got their first taste of a new form of channel to watch out for, in addition to traditional print media, radio, and television.
a new form of channel to watch out for, in addition to traditional print media, radio, and television
Since 2008, the Internet in Indonesia has become more ingrained and widespread 3, not only confined in major cities but reaching as far as mountain villages4. This expansion is attributable to at least three primary developments. First, telecommunications companies began to notice that Indonesia’s large population and thriving tourism industry presented significant Internet profit potential 5. Similarly, the government saw the potential to boost tourism via digital (online) marketing6. Second, progress in telecommunication technology allowed for lower hardware and service subscription costs7. Finally, the influx of introductory-level smartphones onto the market brought Internet access to individuals that could not previously afford it or who did not have access to desktop connections8. These three developments led to 45 million citizens having access to the Internet by late 2011 9.
However, the government soon became concerned about this increased access to the Internet. According to an Indonesian government study from late 2011, 64% of the 45 million Internet users within the country were youth between the ages of 15 and 1910. The primary concern being the widespread access to the Internet among youth would expose them to negative contents. Smaller judicial units, such as the Karanganyar district, held workshops to voice this problem11. Typical content of these workshops and discussion panels being the introduction of facts and figures on internet usage, its effect on youth, and the potential pitfalls of youth Internet usage. Additionally, to control internet usage in this age group, advices would be given to parents and educators, ranging from installing a monitoring software to improving family bonding time12.
However, the government soon became concerned about this increased access to the Internet
In addition to these efforts to change how parents and teachers conceptualized youth Internet usage, Indonesian Communication and Informatics minister Tifatul Sembiring also led a push for Internet censorship within the country. Two methods available were via proxy server and blocking software like Mikrotik13. However, while the censorship idea itself was newly mandated by the central government, at the time the Internet service providers had conducted early censorship following the Fitna video incident. This version of censorship was highly subjective as each ISP set its own standards for what should and should not be blocked1415. A celebrity’s leaked porn video case in 201016 and several pornography scandals within the government from 2011 onwards, where officials were caught watching17 and making18 racy videos, pushed that the government set an uniform standard. The outrage over the pornography scandal also led the President to turn the existing censorship program from a moderate-level ministry effort to a cabinet-level initiative 19. As a result, the Internet Positif project was born.
The project’s website describes Internet Positif as “a protection for society against the values of ethics, morals, and significance that do not fit with the image of the Indonesian nation.[sic]” as well as “savings against wasteful use of internet utilization in Indonesia.[sic]” (Ministry of Communication and Informatics, 2015). This system utilizes blacklist and whitelist to process links, and redirects users trying to access one of the links in the blacklist to its landing page20.
At first, Internet Positif’s scope was minimal and targeted, hitting well-known pornography sites like YouPorn and gambling websites like Poker8821. While some users were clearly disgruntled, to majority these links’ inclusion to the blacklist was a logical and informed move. However, the Internet Positif censorship soon became broader on the sites it chose to block. Overnight, seemingly innocuous sites were blocked22,confusing Internet users as to why mundane news sites or web applications no longer worked. Newly blocked sites included Vimeo, Reddit, Imgur, and Fanfiction.Net as well as blogs on health, medicine, and human anatomy, breastfeeding education, and travel destination in Mentawai23. As time progressed, more and more sites became blocked without any explanations of the government’s decision-making process.
At first, Internet Positif’s scope was minimal and targeted
The process by which the government decided which sites to censor might explain the growing number of blocked sites. Internet Positif welcomes links reported by netizens around the world. Submission can be made through the project’s website with minimal requirements, asking only for report-maker’s name, email address, and whether the report is made as an individual or institutional 24. It doesn’t even ask for a valid ID. It is also unclear what criterion the government uses to judge whether or not a site should be censored. Flaws were found in the system, such as the list of blocked sites available as a giant plain text file25. This would have allowed trolls and pranksters to interfere with the system and get innocent sites blocked through false reports.
Interestingly, Internet Positif not only censored websites, but also became the target of blocking itself. At one point, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Safari gave ‘malware detected’ and ‘unsafe site’ warnings to the project’s landing domain internet-positif.org26. Once the page is loaded, however, users will be redirected once again to internet-positif.org/home because the system apparently blocked itself (Kompas, 2015).
The huge breadth of the program was evident in the way that it targeted harmless online communities on which users share original content. Both Vimeo, a video sharing site, and Fanfiction.Net, a repository of derivative literature, were blocked down for ‘nudity or nudity-like features’27. The sentence stemmed from Indonesia’s ambiguous 2008’s anti-pornography law, which was criticized by fellow lawmakers for its overly broad language, rendering it ineffective.28
The first passage of the law reads ‘Pornography is a picture, sketch, photograph, text, sound, voice, movie, animation, cartoon, conversation, body language, or any other kind of message in any kind of communication or public performance which contains perversion or sexual exploitation beyond the society’s norm’. What is constituted perversion, sexual exploitation, and what defines the society’s norm? Where do works of art and sex education materials lie? The subsequent passages, including the one mentioning ‘nudity or nudity-like features’ add more of such questions.
What is constituted perversion, sexual exploitation, and what defines the society’s norm?
This law’s ambiguity empowered Internet Positif to ban even biology textbooks containing diagrams of human anatomy. In an interview, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Communications and Informatics claimed that the government had tried to communicate with the sites’ administrators, calling for the takedown to any indecent material, but they kept finding more offending content. The huge breadth of this initiative was akin to setting fire to a warehouse because of a small amount of drugs inside, or shutting down a community library because of one raunchy novel hidden amidst a row of Dickens. Blog posts were made by Indonesian netizens to express frustrations to the government, trying to explain the nature of user-generated websites. However, no official response ever came.
The huge breadth of this initiative was akin to setting fire to a warehouse because of a small amount of drugs inside, or shutting down a community library because of one raunchy novel hidden amidst a row of Dickens.
The addition of Vimeo to the block list resulted in broad public confusion as to why YouTube, which was a similar yet larger site, was not also censored. However, in the heat of the debate over Vimeo blocking, media caught wind of the possible reason, and it was not met with favorable responses. In fact, the unearthed scandal dealt even more damage to the project’s credibility as it was discovered that the callous behavior might not be entirely caused by a well-meaning, albeit heavy-handed approach to create a better internet, but rather be a product of political and financial motives.
Vimeo apparently housed a video showing a fellow party member to Tifatul in a not-so-honorable situation29. The same video was hosted on YouTube as well, but deleted soon after30. The iconic red-on-white warning page that appears when individuals try to access blocked content ironically hosts ads. If that were not enough, the ads are sometimes indecent themselves and there is no shortage of commentaries calling out the hypocrisy of this situation31.
Back before the project’s launch, Tifatul Sembiring incited a viral reaction in Indonesian’s social media scene with his poorly worded question on Indonesia’s internet speed (‘Fast Internet? What for?’)32. A flurry of meme was made to ridicule him, and can still be found by inputting his name into Google Images. This incident was the start of public dissatisfaction over Tifatul Sembiring, and by the time Internet Positif rolled out, he was getting more unpopular. At this point, feeling that their protests went unheard, frustrated users resorted to Ad Hominem towards the minister himself, including a field day when said minister followed a steamy Twitter account ‘by accident’ (The Jakarta Globe, 2014). Not a few months since Internet Positif’s launch, Tifatul Sembiring had gained himself requests after requests to resign from the netizens of Indonesia, and at least one online petition was made to replace him 33.
Fast Internet? What for?
Eventually, Tifatul Sembiring left for another station34. There were voices of hope in the articles depicting his departure, suggesting that the blocking will stop. However, not even Tifatul leaving office could end the censorship. His successor, Rudiantara, carried on Tifatul’s legacy, changing nothing of the system. Users tired of the whole censorship saga once again turned to creative outlets, their expression turned into a broad public reaction.
This time, user efforts were on a whole new level. Memes aside, content creators on the net managed to gather generate a parody of the censorship, depicting characters in the spirit of Japanese-style gijinka (anthropomorphism)35. This is an exercise where an inanimate object, including brand or idea, is given an avatar and personality. Example would include company mascots and any characters made for brand awareness. Japan has given us gijinka for countries in the world, variants of Microsoft Windows, even variants of ramen over the country. The censorship scene is now seen and treated like any other pop culture product in Indonesia, a clear irony if one remembers its significant threat to user-generated contents.
a clear irony if one remembers its significant threat to user-generated contents.
Alternatively, others have opted to bypass the Internet Positif system instead of satirizing it. However, Indonesian citizens remain uneasy about the potential reach of their government’s arbitrary censorship program. This public concern has been bolstered by media coverage within Indonesia because of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, as news outlets have consistently pointed to the open Internet as an important impetus for the popular uprisings36. Such coverage, combined with existing frustration over Internet censorship, has led the Indonesian people to increasingly appreciate the value of an open, unregulated Internet, and their protests helped to release several links from the blacklist37.
Many decide to circumvent government censorship entirely, believing they do nothing illegal. The word proxy has reached the household level, no longer confined to geek circles. While locals got past the point of ire, newcomers and travelers to the country still find the level of censorship and citizen circumvention shocking. For a while, it became an accepted source of entertainment when a foreigner described accounts of their interaction with the infamous Indonesian Internet in video or blog posts.
The word proxy has reached the household level, no longer confined to geek circles.
Role of Government
It is no secret that the Internet is monitored by the government in every country. However, there is a point where surveillance stops being a part of national defense and starts being a conscious, pervasive attempt at curbing citizen’s life and free expression. Freedom House classifications record two opposite extremes in Asia. Japan’s relatively free Internet, versus China’s all-restrictive Great Wall38. Looking into the historical data, Indonesia is clearly not ready yet for Japan’s total freedom, as it would trigger unease not unlike the Mohammed incident. While freedom of speech is preferred, the move have to be made carefully.
In the country itself, there are clashing views. BBC surveyed its listener back in 2007 about internet censorships, and there were equal responses for the pro and con 39. However, newer data is needed given the major changes happening between the time the survey was made and today. Older citizen are still notably wary of possible eradication of conventional modesty in Indonesia’s societal culture. The same view is held by religious factions. Indonesian Ulema Council, Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, for example, urges the government to work on preventing citizens from accessing contents that can be deemed ‘moral terrorism’40. According to Pew Internet’s research in 2013, only 55% of Indonesian citizens are supporting freedom on internet41. The article suggested that the trend was rising, but the overall score is still low compared to the other developing countries. Conversely, China’s approach may fit certain civic officer’s view and some religious factions, but will be damaging to Indonesia’s nascent Internet and fledgling awareness of internet democratization.
According to Pew Internet’s research in 2013, only 55% of Indonesian citizens are supporting freedom on internet
The nearest country to Indonesia both geographically and culturally is Malaysia. While their Internet law reads very similarly to Internet Positif’s statement, that is prohibition of “content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive”, no blocking and takedown is facilitated under this law (EFF, 2015). The same document explains that the Malaysian government, however, does utilize blocking for political reasons. Findings up to this day find no blocking is attributed to other reasons.
It is easy to point fingers. To rectify such a messy situation calls for careful planning, especially with all the backlash and distrust the ministry has suffered. The censorship saga is but small portion of the fiasco that is said ministry’s recent history. First, the country has to decide its stance on the freedom of the Internet, and make it consistent. I am a proponent for a free internet, but if the government wishes to aid institutions that still wish to apply the censorship in their locality, then they should design their system as such. Then, the next step is to dissolve the ambiguous chapter in the 2008 law, and write a new one from the ground-up, preferably involving experts on the field. This new version should include better definitions and case studies, and addresses issues in its application in the internet such as the extent that the government should expect to exhibit power and the extent in which the government recognize the Internet as independent, self-contained structure.
The most important thing here is for the government to make guidelines as clearly as possible if actual freedom is not possible, and maintain order by watching for violations of allowed contents while keeping direct intervention as low as possible. Websites not meeting set criteria should be listed on a dedicated page, acting as authoritative advice to individual server administrators to implement as they see fit. The difference from the current practice is for the program to be an opt-in, for those who deem the censorship beneficial (e.g. educational institutions, workplaces), instead of a no-option.
The difference from the current practice is for the program to be an opt-in, for those who deem the censorship beneficial, instead of a no-option.
Establishments like schools and offices typically have some sort of filter in place already to conserve bandwidth, and at home it is up to each parents’ educational policies to rule. The excessive urge to control will only exacerbate the forbidden fruit effect, making users want to access the banned content even more than they did before it was forbidden. Such a nationwide barrier, one-fit-for-all approach, poses more trouble than it’s worth, especially when so shoddily enacted. At best, the public will have to settle with a half-performing Internet, and the public image of the ministry will degrade even further. By only providing tools to those who truly want it, the government can avoid sacrificing users that have no need of such censorship.
At the end of the day, what is better than perusing Reddit’s AMA for some entertaining insights before going to sleep? Alas, as it was, a patch of red on white informs me to stay away from pornography, an ad for penis enlargement pill is tucked neatly down below.
Updates and Even More Opinion
First of all, my most recent check on our beloved censor page revealed that the offensive ad had been gone, although the stream of low-quality clickbaits were still around to stay and the page was still proudly doing self-censoring. Either it was an oversight on the engineer’s part or it was actually a very good self-deprecating joke.
There are several other things I have to bring up that were not in the original essay, partly omitted due to space constraint (the event committee was asking for short essay), but partly because I have to step out from academical bounds to the domain of epileptic trees.
Admittedly, lawmaking in the 21st century is difficult. Do little and one will get torched for ‘lack of concern’. Do much and one is going too far, spawning headlines of Orwellian adjectives. Trying to appease different group of citizen is a huge source of headache, not to mention adding various third-party interests into the equation. Blaming the government for everything is counter-productive. It is no surprise some people found it better to take matter in their own hands, and here we encounter yet another muddy ground.
The core stakeholders are not in sync on what they want. Here, we are leaving the Internet Positif program to shift focus to the people it tries to cater to.
Religious groups say this and NGOs say that, but the demographic targeted the most is of kids and youth, the digital natives and by extension, the adults who are caring for them. The same pressure in lawmaking applies as well in child-rearing. Hounded from all sides, with near-constant media reminder that every little off step could ruin one child’s future, everything come crashing down to make frustrated parents. Have I mentioned that our media today loves sensationalism big time and prone to release yet another scaremongering article to join in the fun?
Parents, one word in which everything converges and bursts.
They have to make ends meet and afford as much time as they can for their children even before adding everything else. Eventually, burned and confused, they demand the world to comply and raise their children in their place, hence nitpicking every little details and jump over the slightest provocation of media bigshots adept in flicking those ‘adult fear’ switches. While getting the world to be a bit more child friendly is definitely not an unpleasant notion, the outrage advertently brought to my mind the problem currently faced by Americans following the Trigger Warning abuse. Unfortunately, the world is not a sheltered, idealized place.
The solution to our problem is stunningly simple. Education. Parents have to be educated to separate the right from wrongs, to be able to make their own stands instead of being swayed left and right by dubious parenting tips or the newest article in the magazine they read. To know the systems in place. Ratings. Recommendations. To understand their own children. Children have to be educated to use technology appropriately and shape their own moral guidance. Blocking is not sustainable. Axe one tree and the other will pop right back from the ground. Today it’s Tumblr. Tomorrow? Maybe the whole internet. What we ought to change is the mindset.
What? But there are classes for children already in school and with social media abound, parents can share stories real-time with other parents, including those ‘tips from influential psychologists’ and ‘celebrity parents’! Alexander Pope in his 1709 book wrote that knowing little is more dangerous than nothing at all. Few people would bother cross-checking the information they get, and pray tell me how many hoax have you gotten in your active social media circles? I can do nothing but facepalm everytime I see someone going gaga over “this widely played vulgar game” or “that indecent book” when the title in question is very definitely aimed for adults from the start and supposedly niche enough to raise a question because anyone mentioning it would be intentionally searching for it. Yes, children get their hands on porn one way or another, but well-meaning adults scaring other adults by making a hyperbole out off data dredging put me off big time. Have you heard the road to hell is paved with good intentions? This will only make parents even more nervous and erode what little trust they have of their children, resorting to shoddy means like spying over their communication networks over actual honest-to-goodness talk. Then the children, feeling betrayed, go out to find something they could do under their parents’ nose without them realizing. It’s a vicious cycle. I digress.
What naivete. Yes, I am no parent myself (and have no intention to be one, ha). I am your run-on-the-mill young adult, and what I say came from what I see in me and my peers’ lives. A very small sample size compared to our nation’s headcount as a whole. Yes, I realize that what I say would most probably be futile since anyone who has enough perserverance to stay this far is likely to possess wit and inquisitiveness to serve them in life. In what may seem anticlimactic, I have decided it is time to end this monstrous article. I have one more theory pertaining the way Easterners often see a child as a property of their parents instead of a growing individual of their own, henceforth explaining half of the ‘control all’ attitude, but it is a topic of another day.
Before we part, here is a picture from a book I read back in middle school.
How dare you, how scandalous, you say? What kind of book did I read at such tender age?
It was a book on optical illusion. It was a picture of dolphins, and it took me several tries and tens of minutes to see the other picture the book said there was. My brain insisted it was a picture of dolphins.
That, dear friend, is the magic of perceptions. Often, you see what you seek for. Children can’t readily recognise erotic scenes even when they encounter one, unlike those older, or ‘corrupted’ individuals.
So tell me, what did you see in that picture?
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21Ministry of Communications and Informatics. 2014. Blacklist. Retrieved from http://trustpositif.kominfo.go.id/files/downloads/index.php?dir=database%2Fblacklist%2F
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34“Ganti Menkominfo Tifatul Sembiring”. (2011). Retrieved from https://www.causes.com/causes/630136-ganti-menkominfo-tifatul-sembiring-dengan-orang-yang-lebih-berkompeten? in Indonesian
35Mahardy, Denny. (2014, September 30). “Tifatul Sembiring Resmi Lengser dari Menkominfo”. Retrieved from http://tekno.liputan6.com/read/2112183/tifatul-sembiring-resmi-lengser-dari-menkominfo in Indonesian
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38MP, Istman. (2014, May 12). Menteri Kominfo Buka Blokir Vimeo. Retrieved from http://tekno.tempo.co/read/news/2014/05/12/072577071/banjir-protes-menteri-kominfo-buka-blokir-vimeo in Indonesian
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40Prastanto, Sandi. (2015, July 7). “MUI: Pemerintah Harus Awasi Konten ‘Terorisme Moral’ ”. Retrieved from http://www.harnas.co/2015/07/07/mui-pemerintah-harus-awasi-konten-terorisme-moral
41ICT Watch. (2014, June 14). “Hanya 55% Orang Indonesia yang Mendukung Freedom on Internet”. Retrieved from http://ictwatch.com/internetsehat/2014/04/16/hanya-55-orang-indonesia-yang-mendukung-freedom-on-internet/ in Indonesian