First it was Vimeo. Then Tumblr. Then the gifs on WhatsApp. Now, it's the most widely-used search engine in the world. The Indonesian government is so concerned about people potentially seeing pornography online that instead of blocking (or threatening to block) individual sites and apps, it went ahead and forced internet service providers to permanently activate the "SafeSearch" mode on Google. This means that X-rated stuff—or "negative content," as the government puts it—won't appear in the search results, regardless of what someone searches.
This is the latest effort by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (Kominfo) in pursuit of a cleaner internet for Indonesians. But these actions often have unintended consequences, like the slow death of Indonesia's manga fan community.
This time it's anyone who uses YouTube because, once SafeSearch was turned on, it affected all Google-owned websites, YouTube included. Suddenly videos and channels disappeared from the platform instantly.
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“I could still access my favorite videos that afternoon, but they were all gone that night," Aditya Saputra, an avid YouTube user, told VICE. "I looked them up using the search feature, but nothing came out. Then I realized YouTube was on 'restricted mode.'"
Kominfo officials said that it didn't mean to censor YouTube as well, it was an unintended consequence of turning SafeSearch on. It's unknown if the YouTube controversy was the result of an algorithmic oversight, or overreach from ISPs, but Kominfo is blaming the ISPs.
“We received a report of operators that did beyond we told them to," Semuel Pangerapan, Kominfo’s Director General of Information Application, told Kompas. "YouTube wasn't supposed to be affected. That’s not what we wanted."
There's no doubt that the internet can be an ugly, dark place. Before it was shut down by Kominfo, the fake news syndicate Saracen was routinely spreading racist memes and articles that played a role in Jakarta elections in 2016. And out of the 800,000 websites the ministry have blocked as of last year, some were those that promoted radical and terrorist ideologies. But the majority of them pornographic sites.
The YouTube mishap was soon fixed and Indonesians are once again free to watch their favorite gaming videos and makeup tutorials. But there's no real guarantee that Kominfo won't later decide that YouTube is too "negative" for public consumption too. After all, that's what the ministry has done to other platforms, like Tik-Tok.
Earlier this year, Kominfo launched Cyber Drone 9, a $14 million USD system that filters and automatically block websites that contain "negative content" ranging from fake news and gambling to "information that will bother the public." Vague statements like that are leaving some Indonesians concerned that the current government is getting a bit too heavy handed in censoring the internet. Others go even further, calling it a threat to the country's democracy.
"It's bad when the government block websites without giving a clear explanation," Heru Sutadi, an analyst at the Indonesia ICT Institute., told VICE. "It’s like we are in New Order era all over again."
He thinks that Indonesia needs a transparent institution that specifically deals with said negative content, like the Film Censorship Board (LSF) does for films, that could set clear standards for censorship that, at the same time, don't violate the people's freedom of expression.
The same reason Kominfo used to ban porn-related Google searches was used to justify its making fake news and radical content less accessible, so I guess we should give it at least some credit. But it's proof of the really broad standards Kominfo has of what unsafe internet use is that make Indonesians nervous—and feel blindsided when the ministry announces yet another ban.
“We don’t know what they’ll censor next," said Ahmad Subakhi, an employee at an IT company. "They've just banned pornography. What's next? Leftist content? Communism? What if they ban music too?"
The thing is, all the money and energy spent on blocking these websites don't even solve the problem entirely. It's 2018 and people find ways to access to websites faster than the government can ban them, with a little help from VPN or anonymous browsers like TOR. In fact, VPN use in Indonesia is the highest in the world, and the children the ministry claimed it's protecting with all this censorship count for some of the users.
"It's such a waste of money to buy these expensive tools that can easily be manipulated with VPN, which costs nothing," Ahmad said.