Thailand’s Net Nannies

Since the military government has banned popular video-sharing websites Veoh, Metacafe and others because users posted videos deemed offensive to the royal family, where can Thailand's netizens turn for video clips?

On Aug. 30, YouTube agreed to remove all "insensitive" videos and the government reached agreed to unblock the site. Veoh, Metacafe and a site called Downthisvideo are all still blocked.

But in the meantime, Thailand has come back with SiamTube, a website that delivers all the movie previews, flapping fat stomachs and gyrating dancers of those other sites with no nasty rumors about the royal family or insults to the monarchy.

The website was launched a few months ago — around the time YouTube was banned — by half-Thai, half-British actress and cover girl Sonia Couling and several business partners. The Eurasian model told local press SiamTube was conceived before YouTube got blocked, but implied that it wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

“Only YouTube is our direct competitor, so that is our strength because right now that website is still closed so this is a good chance for us,” she told the Thai-language publication Biz Week.

Indeed, given Sonia’s partners in developing the site, it’s unlikely that any offensive material would unwittingly sneak in. All the videos on the site now that refer to the country’s revered king are akin to the worshipful clips shown before any cinema screening in Thailand.

SiamTube was developed in conjunction with Mustang Technologies, an American software development firm with Board of Investment privileges that once received a visit from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

“Obviously we are very sensitive to not upset the powers that be,” said John Kathrein, Mustang’s chief technology officer. “It just shows that YouTube doesn’t understand the love the Thai people have for the king.”

SiamTube was designed “to carve out a niche with local content,” Kathrein said, but added that the site would still uphold free speech.

“If it’s not insulting to His Majesty, or not insulting to the monarchy, then we will keep the video,” he said. “Anything that insults His Majesty the King, I wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of it. Even if it’s a gray area, it’s not worth upsetting people.”

Vietnamese company iWay, which helped Mustang build the site, said the partnership would look to develop similar websites in Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia—countries not exactly hailed for freedom of expression.

“We hope they will bring to visitors the best quality in the most conformable [sic] to their culture, politics, network infrastructure, hobbies and habits,” the company said in a statement on its website. Yet even as a market develops to serve governments who want to put a lid on political speech, the questions concerning how to protect both free speech and Thailand’s monarchy have still not been dealt with, technologically or politically. This allows the government free reign to ban anything it deems offensive to either the monarchy or national security — two catchall categories that could be stretched to mean just about anything.

Veoh, a site similar to YouTube, was blocked earlier this month after a user posted a rrisque personal video purportedly of the Thai Royal FamilyICT Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom has said that YouTube would be unblocked once Thailand’s internet service providers (ISPs) have installed cache engines that allow officials to block individual URLs instead of entire websites. Supposedly this was going to happen a month ago, but still today visitors get this Thai-language message when clicking on YouTube, Veoh or Metacafe: “Sorry [state telecom company] TOT as an organization of Thailand has seized the connection of this website due to certain content, messages and images that are inappropriate that have had a tremendous impact on the hearts of Thai people.”

Apparently the Thai people are unable to look after their own hearts by simply not clicking on YouTube, so the Bangkok nannies will do it for them. Back in April when the site was first banned because of a crude clip that insulted the king with all manner of indignities, YouTube offered to “educate” Thai authorities about how to block certain videos. “It’s up to the Thailand government to decide whether to block specific videos, but we would rather that than have them block the entire site,” YouTube spokeswoman Julie Supan told Agence France-Presse at the time.

A senior ICT Ministry official said in an interview Monday that YouTube should come back online for Thai users “within this week. We are working with the private sector and YouTube headquarters.”

Although he wouldn’t disclose exactly how the situation would be resolved, he said: “YouTube cannot allow certain videos with the royal family because it’s against the right of privacy. The king is not a public person under the law. YouTube has also banned the video of [British princess] Diana’s car crash because it was private.”

“Frankly the status of the king doesn’t compare with the status of the US president; it’s different,” he added. “Someone very far from Thailand doesn’t understand, but we try to explain it to them.”

A compromise seems inevitable as fighting the web is almost surely a losing battle. Miscreants who want to see offensive videos can certainly do so through proxy servers or new video-sharing sites that pop up all the time. Indeed, blocking websites often simply draws attention to the banned videos, and the most lurid material often passes hand-to-hand around Bangkok anyway.

The problem that free-speech advocates have is that YouTube’s closure comes amid a climate of suppression that has persisted since the military deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup last September. While Thaksin also stifled the media through heavy-handed libel lawsuits, corporate maneuvers and withdrawing advertising dollars of his family’s firms to unfriendly papers, the new government has done nothing to improve media freedom.

Although the new constitution supposedly increases media freedoms, eight laws sitting before the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly will actually undermine the guarantees in the new charter, Joel Simon and Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in The Nation newspaper earlier this month.

“The government’s new willingness to openly censor Internet-posted news suddenly puts Thailand in league with Asia’s more notorious media freedom violators, including the likes of China, Vietnam and Burma,” they wrote. “More broadly, it shows how the application of laws intended to protect the honor of Thailand’s widely revered monarch can have a sweeping and adverse impact on freedom of expression. With YouTube blocked, the Thai people are cut off from a vital new tool of global communication.”

Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said in an interview that the government had yet to distinguish between sites that are truly offensive to the monarchy and those that express legitimate political opposition.

“The media environment is not better than under Thaksin; it’s worse,” said Supinya, who suffered first-hand when Thaksin’s Shin Corp leveled a 400-million-baht libel lawsuit against her — a case she eventually won.

“Thaksin tried to control things too much, but we were able to fight back,” she said. “But under this government when you try to fight back they say you don’t love the nation, don’t love the king, and you are a bad person. They scare people from upholding these rights, which deeply affects the country’s democracy.”