Sunday, September 2, 2007

YouTube back in Thailand

Finally, YouTube is back on air in Thailand. At the time it was taken out, I wrote a piece for the Bangkok Post that got a lot of comment, both in praise of the piece as well as some nasty stuff. In response, I noted that I was never in favour of censoring YouTube, rather I thought that Google/YouTube was incredibly hypocritical in how they reacted to different countries/situations. So here it is again — see what you think.

The hypocrisy of YouTube

It’s not often Thailand makes it on to the global media stage for an ICT-related story, but it has now earned its own triple-play by appearing in mainstream dailies, tech-related publications and blogs around the world. And all because it dared ban the mighty YouTube.

I’m all for protecting freedom of speech as much as the next guy, the only problem being we don’t really know who the next guy is. What’s freedom of speech to me could be the equivalent of casting aspersions on someone’s mother to someone else. A smack on the nose might be justified.

YouTube doesn’t know who the next guy is either, which is why it can insult Thailand without actually knowing and understanding the people here. Worse, YouTube revels in the fact that it doesn’t know what anyone’s doing on its site, which is a recipe for disaster. Thailand’s virtual smack on the nose will be one of many to come.

I realise I’m on a hiding to nothing here – write anything that vaguely hints at curtailing freedom of speech and the sanctimonious set will come out of nowhere citing Voltaire and his willingness to fight to the death so you can have your say. Now how’s that for extreme! Had Voltaire seen most of the dross on YouTube, he might have fought for your right to get rid of it altogether.

The freedom fighters also suggest that it’s one small nudge and we’ll be into a totalitarian state. Hello – Thailand’s under military rule, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Personally I don’t have a fixed position when it comes to censorship. Pornography: I’m more offended by high-end designer ads using kids in soft-core porn poses to sell their wares than I am by hard-core porn, which I can more easily avoid. I would also use self-censorship to protect someone’s reputation if there wasn’t a good reason for besmirching it. On the other hand, deflating egos, rounding up sacred cows and skewering with satire should all be made into competitive sports, as far as I’m concerned.

And let’s not forget that YouTube, in reality Google, its owner, has a similarly dithering position when it comes to censorship. As most people are aware, Google heavily censors the search results for its Chinese search engine. Why? Because the Chinese Government asked them to. Yet when Thailand asks the GoogleTube to remove a video because its insulting to the monarchy, it brings out the freedom of expression arguments. That’s not freedom, that’s hypocrisy.

Here’s another example that you might not be aware of. As you know, there’s a World Cup of Cricket happening right now, usually at a time when most of us in this part of the world are in bed. So a popular way to see the highlights was to go to YouTube to see short clips of the action. Yet Google also saw fit to drop any video of the action. Why? Because the International Cricket Council asked them to. Apparently it offended the commercial rights holders.

There are plenty of other examples, including from places like Australia, but I’m guessing you can see the pattern. Forget about protesting the Thai ban on Google, we should all be protesting the hypocrisy of GoogleTube, which is happy to take down videos of cricket highlights for commercial reasons but baulks at taking down images offensive to the monarchy and thus illegal in Thailand.

Another point to make: Every country regulates Internet content in one way or another. Ang Peng Hwa, an associate professor covering media law and ethics at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, has been making this point in papers and conferences since the early 90s. You can find his various papers at, including one on “How countries are regulating Internet content”, which has a wealth of examples. The bottom line is that there is no universal model or right way.

He writes in the paper: “Ultimately, each country’s regulation of the Internet is driven not by technology or law but by the culture – in the broadest sense of the word – of the society. Each country has its own specific concerns and it is this rich variety of concerns that adds to the diversity of the Internet.”

So let’s not all get hung up on defending the rights of second-rate entertainment services like YouTube. If it wants to operate globally, it has to respect the rights of the countries it operates in – and not just the commercial rights of a few powerful entities or the rights of powerful countries. In the case of Thailand, it should know that it is an offence to deface an image of the monarchy – just ask the Swiss guy who’s got10 years prison for doing just that (He's now back in Switzerland). If the managers of YouTube want to come and defend their rights, let them come here and see just where it lands them. – Geoff Long

1 comment:

Ang Peng Hwa (RI 1975) said...


I happened to be looking for something I had said and came across your post mentioning me. I couldn't have said it better. :) Thanks for the 0.15 kbytes of fame.

Ang Peng Hwa