Info crawler addendum

Personal note: It’s almost Christmas now. Since the beginning of this month, my TT&T Maxnet Internet connection has been quirky. I am supposed to have a fast DSL subscriber connection, at least that’s what I am paying for. But I am currently getting 6-8 kbps download speed, which doesn’t even make my old Hayes modem envious. Some sites such as Wikipedia aren’t accessible at all, although I can still connect via proxy server. I hear that other people in Thailand are experiencing similar… um… surprises. To be honest, most people aren’t really surprised. This experience is sort of common. When I was still subscribed with CAT, I was actually glad to get anything above 0 kbps because half of the time the connection didn’t work at all. Once I made the mistake to call their customer service to inquire about this.The receptionist connected me to the “technician”. The technician determined that this was a “special” problem and decided that I had to talk to a specialised technician. The specialised technician then connected me to another technician who was allegedly responsible for my area. That person finally routed me back to the first “technician” so the game could start anew. Well, it could have, but I hung up at that point. I am not even thinking about calling TT&T now. – It’s the time to be merry.

On the info crawler lane

Sometimes I wonder when exactly Thailand has decided to jump on the info highway. Or hasn’t it? I am not sure, because on one hand telecom and IT are ubiquitous in daily use, on the other hand nobody seems to care much about it, at least not in the upper ranks of government. Of course, there is one organisation that has always cared about ICT in Thailand, namely the CAT. No, it’s not a feline quadruped but an acronym that stands for “Communication Authority of Thailand”. Behind this rather grandiose name is the wonderful state-run telecom company which owns Thailand’s international communication infrastructure. One of its major achievements was to ensure that general Internet access is twice as expensive as in Europe and America and about five to ten times slower.

The CAT, however, is just one piece in the ICT jigsaw puzzle. There are other players, such as the aptly named TOT (which means “dead” in German), the national company that owns much of the domestic telecom infrastructure. Both organisations have proven their competence by dominating the telecom markets for decades. Of course, this is not too difficult if you are a monopoly. In fact, you could reduce customer service to almost zilch and still dominate the market. Not that I am accusing these highly praised organisations of such a thing. As state-enterprises, they are forced to follow government policies, aren’t they? They are just the pawn of the ICT ministry. Or perhaps it is the other way round? Goodness knows. At least officially, the ministry of ICT (MICT) reigns supremely over said organisations.

The MICT is a fairly young entity. Being established in this millennium, it is certainly younger than the companies it is supposed to control. However, the ministry has quickly gained fame by announcing the privatisation of these companies and then reversing its decision. Rumours that the recently resigned ICT minister has done this on the same day in two different press conferences cannot be confirmed, however. Apart from amazing press announcements, most people know the MICT from blocking websites. Of course, the  MICT’s “McClean” campaign only targets sleazy and illegal websites which are no good anyway, such as youtube.com. Yet it would be unfair to suggest that the MICT’s activity is restricted to blocking websites. Of course they do a lot more.

For example, the ministry has recently established the ICT Usage Promotion Bureau. This bureau stepped into action right away and produced a so-called “Housekeeper CD” which will be distributed freely in Thailand next month. The software on this CD blocks even more websites. It will protect us from what the enlightened bureaucrats consider evil influences. Of course, it’s up to everyone to decide whether to follow the MICTS’s idea of safe Internet usage and install this “Housekeeper”. I can already see throngs of people queuing up to get their hands on the CD. The interesting thing about this case is that one of the first acts of an agency whose mandate is to promote ICT usage is to limit its usage. Quite a remarkable waste of tax money, if you ask me.

Certainly there are more efficient ways to protect unsuspecting citizens from the hazards of ICT usage: Thailand’s so-called cybercrime law, for example, which was passed earlier this year. The new law requires every service provider to keep a record of it’s users Internet usage for 90 days. A “service provider” is by definition everyone who provides an Internet service (quite obviously). This ranges from access providers and Internet cafés to website operators and blog authors. Theoretically, every of these entities is required to keep a log of their user’s full identity including their names. The cybercrime hunters expect service providers to hand over such information to the police upon request. It will be interesting to see how online services, bloggers and forum operators will go about recording their user’s real identities, given that they never see their users. Of course, if the host computer is located outside Thailand, then the crime of not collecting user particulars is not punishable under Thai law. Oh well. Not exactly a boost to the Thai hosting industry, I suppose.

Another interesting aspect of the new law is the “Photoshop clause” which makes it illegal to post an altered image of a person on the Internet if the image damages that person’s reputation. This does of course immediately raise the question, whether it is also illegal to post a non-altered image that damages a person’s reputation, nude photos of the ex-girlfriend, for example. According to the cybercrime law this would be perfectly legal, although it may be expected that the defamation articles of the civil code may be applied in such cases. One can only marvel at the half-baked authoritarian style of the legislation and the stunning absence of any far-sightedness. It makes one ask: “Are you serious?” Unfortunately they are.

Thailand and the YouTube case

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.

Thailand’s human resource slump

ComWorld Expo Thailand

This year’s Comworld show, which was staged at the Siam Paragon shopping centre in Bangkok earlier this month, received a fairly reserved welcome from Thailand’s ICT Minister Sithichai Pokaiudom. The minister who had been newly appointed by Thailand’s “transitional” government, was one of the key note speakers at the opening of the exhibition on February 8th. In his speech he said that it is wrong for Thai people to admire modern technology which was not developed by Thais. He stated: “It is a fake development because the country is now getting worse as almost everything at the exhibition here is imported and nothing is made by Thais.”

The minister said that the term “Thai computers” should mean Thai made computer components and Thai design, not just imported components assembled in Thailand. “It is sad that today we cannot find any Thai products. The technology show here provides foreigners an opportunity to take money from Thai people. To be truly proud, it should show technology that has been developed by Thais,” the ICT Minister said.

As a foreigner living in Thailand and working in Thailand’s IT industry for more than 10 years, I find the minister’s statements curious. First of all, the opening of an IT sales fair seems to be an awkward occasion for such criticism. Second, the implicit demand that all parts of a complex technological product such as a computer should be domestic made strikes me as fairly unrealistic. I wonder if any country in the world produces a 100% domestic made computer. Finally, the protectionist anti-foreigner undertones in this speech, which we have recently heard more often from this government, are somewhat worrying.

The truth is that Thailand does produce quite a few components from hard disks to chips which are used in today’s computer products all over the world. Seagate, Western Digital, Microchip all maintain manufacturing facilities in Thailand. However, the engineering that goes into making these components is almost exclusively imported. The research and design necessary to develop competitive high-tech products is something that Thailand cannot currently provide. I certainly agree with the minister that it would be very desirable for Thailand to have its own engineering force to compete with the likes of Intel and Seagate in future. Alas, this is presently not the case, and one should perhaps examine the reason for this.

The reason is that Thailand lacks several important prerequisites for becoming a major player in information technology, a situation which is unfortunately not new and which has never been remedied by the Thai government. One of the major causes is the poor standard of IT education in Thailand. An information technology degree is still a rarity, and IT students do not receive the same standard of education as in other countries. From my own experience, I can say that the majority of computer science graduates from Thai universities cannot be employed productively in a commercial environment. It takes one or two years of training on the job until they stop being a cost factor and start to perform in a way you would expect them to perform as fresh graduates.

Perhaps the most important factor is culture. Thailand does not seem to provide a culture that fosters research and development in the high-tech industry. If you speak to local engineers, it appears that the majority is perfectly happy to apply existing technologies instead of inventing new ones. This may be the result of an education system that rewards rote learning and reproduction instead of creativity and “thinking outside the box”. As a consequence, the innovation rate of Thai companies is low and the Thai engineering industries have staid comparatively small and ineffectual.

Finally, there is a consistent lack of government support. IT was probably never a priority topic on the agenda of the Thai government, which is understandable, since the country has many other important issues to solve. However, the multitude of enthusiastic announcements of previous governments to support the national IT industry is in stark contrast to what has actually been done. In spite of proclamations of Dr. Sithichai’s predecessors to make the Thai IT internationally competitive, surprisingly little has happened. So, instead of reproaching the industry for building computers from imported components, it would be much more interesting to hear from the ICT minister how he thinks the situation can be changed for the better and how he plans to implement actions to that end. Alas, there was silence.