Opinion

Toward an open, free and
secure Internet

Indonesian netizens have taken to social media to express their frustrations over the blocking of Vimeo, a video sharing site. Telkomsel’s customers first noticed the block, but soon two other major Internet service providers (ISPs) reported it (Indosat and XL Axiata), though the site remains accessible to customers of smaller ISPs.

A number of users voiced their concerns by tweeting Communications and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring, who explained that the site was blocked because it featured pornographic content and that the action was in accordance with the 2008 law on pornography.

“Pornographic content” is often pulled out to justify the government’s decision to block specific URLs or websites, and most of these decisions are not publicly disputed. However, blocking Vimeo is controversial because the website has gained a reputation for its high-quality and high-definition videos and the site forbids users from uploading sexually explicit material or pornography.

The ministry has been criticized not only for its wholesale ban of Vimeo in particular, but also the opaque nature of its censorship regime in general, which threatens freedom of expression and potentially harms the economy’s development.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs has been documenting national level Internet censorship for over a decade. In collaboration with our partners in the OpenNet Initiative project, we have tested for Internet filtering in 74 countries and found that 42 of them, including Indonesia, implement some level of filtering. Internet filtering in Indonesia is decentralized in both policy and technical processes.

Although the government provides broad expectations and “rules” about what content ISPs should filter and is moving toward standardizing laws that would more systematically regulate content control practices, the actual control of content today is primarily left to the discretion of the ISPs.

Our research has shown that a range of Internet filtering devices and content control practices are employed by over 300 ISPs in Indonesia. Some use government-promoted systems like DNS Nawala and TRUST Positif, while others use different systems. One ISP uses Netsweeper, a content filtering service manufactured by the Canadian company Netsweeper Inc.

We also detected the presence of devices California-based Blue Coat Systems, such as PacketShaper, used to monitor and control network traffic, on two major telecommunications companies, PT Telkom and PT Indosat, as well as CacheFlow, installed by PT Telkom. This is an appliance which mainly optimizes bandwidth by caching though it can also be configured to block content.

We found that ISPs are inconsistent regarding the nature of content that they target for filtering. Although the ministry requires pornography and gambling-related content to be blocked, Indonesian ISPs apply content controls not just to content belonging to these categories, but also to websites with content related to religion, sexuality, and gender (e.g. local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] community websites), among others, due to the evidently error-prone mechanism of categorizing website URLs.

We uncovered evidence that websites of businesses, academic institutions, and government agencies have been included in TRUST Positif’s database of blacklisted URLs, which result in these websites being blocked by ISPs that rely on this database.

With regard to Vimeo, the TRUST Positif database that was updated on May 9 indicates that the whole domain (vimeo.com) is to be blocked. This is in striking contrast to the blocking of individual URLs with objectionable content, which is what the database has already done with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — services with significantly more users and, therefore, a potentially larger amount of “negative” content compared to Vimeo. These inconsistencies illustrate the challenges in Indonesia’s existing content control mechanism.

The absence of standardized laws and regulations that systematically regulate content control practices and the lack of transparency and independent oversight over the government-mandated censorship regime mean that there is an increased risk for infringing on fundamental rights.

For example, the Ministerial Decree on the Controlling of Internet Websites with Negative Content, currently in draft form, has been criticized for its vague and overly broad provisions that allow authorities to criminalize free expression.

The Internet is valuable as a key enabler of economic growth. The country has a large young population and around 71 million of the country’s 250 million are Internet users. The wholesale blocking of websites could do more harm than good to the economy in the long run because the country’s e-commerce market is growing rapidly and an increasing number of businesses are promoting themselves online.

In light of these potential problems and concerns, it is important that the government takes steps to ensure accountability in the content control process. To preserve the open, competitive and innovative nature of the Internet, the government must engage with and involve civil society, private sector, academia, technical community and other stakeholders in the governance of the Internet in Indonesia.

The writer is communications officer of Citizen Lab, the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada, which focuses on research and development of information and communication technologies, human rights and global security.

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