Indonesia's internet censorship, two years on

Slowly but surely, we're curving away from total net neutrality.

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It's been two years since I made this blog post about a filtering system made by the Ministry of Communications and Information called Internet Positif, a tool often used to protect kids from viewing porn on the internet.

However, as time goes it has done anything but that.

Most of what Internet Positif has done is merely made towards the interests of the people who operated the filters, like that one time when we successfully blocked several websites related to radicalism. This raised my concerns that the Internet Positif program is a borderline-censorship system, which can be misused for the government's advantage.

Not only that. There has also been a lot of stuff going on within our country that I find very frightening. If anything, they are totally detrimental to the state of net neutrality in Indonesia.

Tumblr, Reddit, Vimeo, and self-censorship

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Communications and Information added Tumblr to their blocklist for less than a day, due to pornographic material, before the decision was reverted.

This brought up a bit of a stir within the online community before the decision was reverted, especially with how the reason they found said "pornographic material". Their own perverted mind probably made them type "porn" on the search bar of websites and add the websites in question to the blocklist if anything shows up.

But the reversal came with a little extra thing nobody ever asked for. The Communications and Information Ministry issued a press release clarifying their stance on the whole Tumblr debacle. In their press release, they stated that they knew pornographic contents don't exist in all Tumblr accounts, but because ISPs are unable to do per-account blocking, they would pressure Tumblr users to resort to self-censorship.

Self-censorship has become somewhat of an art form in Indonesia, especially in television. Look at this Remotivi analysis on how the grey areas of our broadcasting code has led many TV channels to resort to self-censorship to avoid getting sanctions.

In the digital age, especially in the advent of the Internet, it has rose to new heights. Controlling the internet is hard, seeing how much content is created on the internet within the course of a day.

We've already seen what happened to websites like Vimeo and Reddit, both of which got blocked because they mistakenly referred to those sites as "pornographic". Then a few months back, in the so-called "LGBT panic", we saw LINE fell to peer pressure when our government demanded to remove stickers on their app that was deemed to contain "LGBT material".

There are fears that Tumblr may still get blocked if they don't want to cooperate with our government. Seeing what they've done, I bet that would happen sometime.

Over the top, under the shade

Not only censorship, what the governmet has also further cracked down on are the so-called "over-the-top" (OTT) service providers, further shackling them and possibly jeopardizing the security and privacy of their users.

On March 31, 2016, the Ministry of Communications and Information published a circular, introducing their new regulations against these OTT service providers, a regulation which I found to be catastrophic.

In their scope, types of online services that are defined as an OTT service providers are as follows: instant messaging, voice/video chats, social networks, commercial and financial transaction services, data collection & extraction services, as well as content/entertainment distribution services like video, audio, images, video games, and the like.

However, these are very loosely defined so that we'll never know which kind of sites also fall into this definition. For all we know, search engines could probably be included in the mix as well.

But that's not the point. The circular pointed out all of the obligations that these OTT services should follow. For instance, they will have to have its servers hosted in Indonesia, and to have an Indonesian IP address. In a sense, all of these service providers will have to set up a form of local infrastructure in order to operate legally here.

What about self-censorship? Oh, they do cover that, with a catch-all clause stating that they must "filter their contents according to the laws that apply."

Now, here is the part which concerns me the most. There's one clause in the circular which states that these OTT services must oblige to "lawful interception." This means they have to comply with criminal investigators when they're asked to turn over the data of a certain user in the case of an investigation.

In a single sweep, the government has pretty much cracked down on internet freedom, putting social networks, private messaging, and all other services in jeopardy because of this backwards law that has yet to pass. This is detrimental to the security of these services, and also a threat to online privacy.

Even after the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which provided us with a scoop on what shadowy government agencies like the NSA or the GCHQ could do in order to intercept our personal information, this has not yet concerned most Indonesians. This, to me, is very worrying.

The net neutrality debate, or lack thereof

In a perfect world, data flowing through the Internet has to be treated equally, without any forms of discrimination by user, content, site, platform, or mode of communication. This is the basic concept of net neutrality. In net neutrality, the internet is treated as a public utility, where everyone should get the same speed, same amount of content, without any forms of throttling, or even filtering or censorship.

However, as soon as the world's largest online movie streaming site Netflix arrived in the Indonesian market, Indonesia's largest ISP blocked access to Netflix for its users. I did ask their support account for their reasoning, and all I got was their cookie-cutter response of "protecting the citizens" claiming that Netflix is full of movies that might contain pornographic content.

However, some critics have stated that the decision was made to protect its business interests. You see, Telkom claims that Netflix will have to have a partnership with any of the local ISPs or carriers so that it would be allowed to legally operate in Indonesia, referencing the new OTT laws explained earlier. In the other side, Telkom has made a partnership with another Netflix competitor called iFlix.

So basically, Telkom lied to us by telling that the block was made to protect us. In fact, they violated the core concepts of net neutrality by blocking a certain service for their own interests. For the Americans out there, it's basically like Comcast planning to block Netflix just because they entered a partnership program with Hulu.

In summary, Indonesia has been curving away from the core essence of net neutrality. Thanks to some shady borderline-censorship filtering system, self-censorship initiatives, and lack of discussion regarding how the internet should be treated, Indonesia seems to be moving away from total net neutrality.

In the age of information, where the growth of technology is increasing exponentially, it is important to understand them well in order to help make a better environment for everyone, no exceptions. Unfortunately, there are still governments around the world that never seem to get the idea of how technology works in a global space, in fact refusing to accept the fact that technology is a global playground. They put forth their ego to clamp down on innovation in the digital landscape, and to further restrict the civil rights of its citizens.

The whole deal with censorship means that we have no forms of education teaching us what content is deemed suitable for children.

This is inherently bad, because it's the parents who should learn to decide what sites that their kids should and shouldn't visit. With censorship, we've basically pretended that these forms of "negative content" never even existed at all. And seeing how easy a web filter could be bypassed, a well-educated child will just circumvent those filters to find out for themselves.

It frustrates me that there is almost no signs of net neutrality debate going on here in Indonesia. In fact, a recent survey by Pew Research showed that most Indonesians are okay with censorship!

We must put forth these issues into public discussion. It's not about black or white, it's about freedom of speech. It's about having the rights to voice your opinions, it's about the right to choose which services to use without intervention from our ISPs.

It's also about getting educated about the wonders (and dangers) of the internet. The government should have taken a more hands-on approach in educating people how the internet should be used, and parents should be given the necessary knowledge to educate their children and monitor their internet activities, in order for them to stay safe on the internet.

Hey! This post was originally published on Southeast Asian Social Critique, a Medium publication by the amazing Bonni Rambatan (@bonni07). Go check it out!

Resi Respati

Web developer based in Jakarta, Indonesia.