YouTube is an extraordinary phenomenon. The video sharing portal was founded in February 2005 and sky-rocketed to international fame within only 12 months. In November 2006, juggernaut Google acquired YouTube for the fabulous price of 1.65 billion USD. But not everything looks as bright as YouTube’s bottom line. While YouTube has struggled with copyright infringements from the beginning, it has recently come under fire from the governments of various nations. After the site was banned by Turkey and Brazil earlier this year, YouTube is now also banned by the Thai government, effective from the 3rd of April until presently. The ban in Thailand is officially due to a video clip insulting the King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej, although some sources claim that the government wants to cut off videos coming from the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The king is highly revered in Thailand and the country maintains a lèse majesté statute in its penal law, which is considered a serious crime, and which has been enforced in the recent past.
From the Thai perspective, things are clear. The ICT ministry sees it as a question of defending national values. It wants to send a signal. It has given YouTube an ultimatum to remove the offending clip and -since YouTube failed to comply with its demand- the website was blocked. YouTube has offered the Thai ICT ministry technical assistance in blocking single video clips, rather than blocking the entire website, but the ICT ministry decided not to bother with it. On one hand, the policy can be seen as a populist measure that emphasises the cultural identity of the Thais. On the other hand, it comes across as a somewhat arbitrary and insensitive decision, which is likely to worsen the problem rather than solving it.
The lèse majesté video on YouTube has already prompted a number equally tasteless copycat clips which now enjoy the limelight of international media attention. It could be said that the censoring decision provoked some sort of small-scale culture clash on YouTube. Meanwhile, the Thai population is not only cut off from the offending clips, but also from thousands -if not millions- of legitimate videos. This is especially disadvantageous to the education sector, which relies on YouTube for the delivery of English language documentaries and educational material. Film makers, creative artists, as well as the teenager community in Thailand have also been left in the dust.
For YouTube, the case has opened a can of worms. The company finds itself in a quandary, balancing the principle of freedom of expression with the principle of respecting cultural minorities. How far should freedom of expression go? How far should the interests of minorities be protected? Obviously, YouTube is unable to regard the sensibilities of all minority groups in the international community. In view of the enormous amount of uploaded material, this would not only pose a huge technical challenge, but it would also raise insurmountable editorial problems. For example, what should YouTube do, if a Palestinian organisation requests the removal of Israeli propaganda films? What should be done if China requests the removal of documentaries about the Tiananmen Square incident? What should be done if Muslims demand the removal of films that criticise Islam? You get the idea.
Since it is impossible to satisfy the needs of all cultures simultaneously, it is best left to individual bodies, such as governments, to apply selective filtering if deemed necessary. Was the Thai government then right to block the YouTube website? – Probably not. – Solutions to difficult problems, such as this, cannot be found by acting out hostility. Instead of applying steamroller tactics, the Thai government would probably have achieved more satisfactory results by cooperating with YouTube. A more selective approach would have afforded the Thai user community continued access to the legitimate content on YouTube. Most importantly, it would have avoided media exposure and the ensuing escalation of the case. Thus the Thai YouTube case is not an example of abuse of government power, but rather an example of uninformed and insensitive use of government power.