A rather innocuous looking letter from the Minister of Communications and Information regarding the blocking of sites and blogs that host and show the film produced by Geert Wilders, Fitna, is a letter that has serious consequences for those of us that use the Internet as a means of communication.
The letter itself is based on Article 21 of the Telecommunications Law (No. 36 of 1999) which prohibits the broadcasting of material that impacts negatively on relations between religions and harmony (in the public order sense). Article 21 permits the government to suspend telecommunication providers activities if they broadcast, or continue broadcasting, after being informed that certain material is objectionable.
The Telecommunications Law itself does not explicitly state how the government is to do this and whether a Circular is within the scope of the provision. There is probably a sustainable argument that Circulars in the legislation sense are not binding or would require other legislative instruments to give full force and effect to the intent of the Circular. The cynics among us might just view this as appeasement of those clamouring for Fitna to be banned and for Wilders to be punished for his alleged blasphemy.
This letter was not issued based on any of the provisions of the recently passed Information and Electronic Transactions Bill.
It is beyond the scope of this post to debate the merits or lack thereof of Fitna. However, the Minister of Communication and Information has established a precedent of how it intends to respond to objectionable material, and that is to restrict it as far as possible.
Unfortunately, it seems that some Internet providers and network access points have decided to completely block access to certain sites. Some has gone as far as to completely block access to You Tube, My Space, Meta Café, Rapidshare, and other sites in order to comply with the Minister’s letter. This seems a little extreme as by completely blocking access to a site means that ‘all” the material is prohibited from entering Indonesia and this is clearly not the intent of the original instruction from the Minister.
It seems that businesses have decided that there is less impact on their bottom lines by blocking the whole rather than putting in place a filter that potentially could slow down their system functions and capabilities.
The other consideration is that those with a real interest in the film have already downloaded it and could conceivably host it locally or attach it to a mass email in order to distribute it. The letter and response from a number of telecommunications companies highlights the difficulties that the government and providers will encounter in selective blocking of sites and material.
For subscribers of providers that have blocked access completely to certain sites it is unclear what recourse they might be able to follow in order to restore partial access to material that has no relationship to the banned film.
This may not be enough to stir serious debate on future censorship of the Internet in Indonesia but it is certainly food for thought for those businesses that conduct or rely heavily on the Internet in the performance of their respective businesses.
The letter was issued on 2 April 2008.
As a postscript to this issue.
The government has already backed down with regards to the generalized blocking of sites. However, it would seem that some providers are still trying to work out ways in which to block material. I know from personal experience that Telkom speedy has been tinkering with its services as I am periodically blacked out from blogspot.com. However, the last few days the tinkering has resulted in not much more than overall bad service as Friday and Saturday have seen sporadic connectability!