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     Volume 6 Issue 14 | April 13, 2007 |

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Principle of Freedom of Speech Works Both Ways

Jeerawat Na Thalang

You Tube might have shrugged off a plea from the Thai government to block an offensive video clip by citing freedom of expression. I would think otherwise.

Instead, I think that the value of freedom of expression is being tested by the digital technology these days that allows people to express their opinions without showing their true identity and to avoid taking responsibility for the claims they make in the guise of freedom of expression.

Yes, I am talking about the video clip offensive to the monarchy that might be acceptable by Google-owned YouTube's values and standards, but is not so here in Thailand.

The video clip in question was posted by a person with a fake identity. Whoever made the clip clearly intended to outrage the majority of Thais with digitally manipulated images of the monarchy. The creator must be well aware of Thailand's cultural sensitivity and decided to touch a raw nerve with Thai users of YouTube.

Whoever was responsible did not have to be a genius to rightly predict the consequences of the amateurish video clip. First, the Thai government would have to ask YouTube to withdraw the clip because it's against the law here, which YouTube would refuse to do. Then, the media watchdogs would blame the Thai government for violating the value of freedom of speech. Bingo to the creator.

I have to say that if I were the Thai government, I would allow YouTube to air any video clip and let the public judge the merit of the "freedom of expression" that the company and international rights groups love to tout.

By shutting down the website, all the blame was turned upon the Thai government. Some international media even mocked the government's blocking of the website as a desperate attempt to fight the power of the Internet, comparing it to the decision by a Turkish court to suspend access to YouTube in response to the posting of a clip that reportedly insulted the founding father of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

From an outsider's perspective, the ban on YouTube has been more damaging to the Thai government. In fact, the blocking of the website by the ICT Ministry touched off a storm of web-based retaliation that could see a rapid rise of offensive references to the monarchy on the Internet.

As a YouTube visitor and a Thai, I don't have a perfect answer here. Besides, I am wondering how I would react if I saw a picture of my father under someone else's foot, considered highly disrespectful, on YouTube.

Now, coming to the "freedom of expression" principle that has become the key point in the issue. In my understanding, freedom of speech should ensure the people's right to express their opinions as part of the promotion of democratic values. For instance, people should have fair opportunity to participate in the spread of ideas to establish social conventions.

But freedom of speech should also be interactive, because speech involves both speakers and listeners, or an audience. Both sides should be able to interact equally with each other in showing what things mean to them and what they think is proper or improper.

However, the "freedom of speech" seen on YouTube is, for me, one-way communication. Most creators of offensive clips refuse to reveal their true identities to avoid taking responsibility for what they have done. In short, the creators just hit and run. Like any information on the Internet, there's also the question of its reliability.

When the Thai government reacted by expressing the view that the video clip was deemed "offensive" in Thai culture and requesting its withdrawal, YouTube's Julie Supun said she was "disappointed" and pointed out that the Internet presented "new and unique" challenges.

YouTube also suggested earlier that Americans didn't seem to mind seeing US President George Bush being ridiculed. But Thais don't seem to mind seeing their prime minister being ridiculed either. I take this as an example of how YouTube doesn't have the slight awareness of cultural sensitivities here.

Supun is right that the Internet presents "new and unique" challenges for society. But its actions so far imply that YouTube is more concerned with the challenge of restrictions on accessibility, without giving much consideration to the audience at the receiving end.

Digital technology creates a new challenge because it can be easily accessed by a worldwide audience. But when it comes to what is to be considered "offensive" or what should be off-limits due to public concerns, YouTube draws its own line and blames others for not sharing the same values.

While it is almost impossible to control the Internet, which has become the most effective tool to spread information worldwide in seconds, it would be even worse to see such a popular website turn a blind eye to offensive messages or groundless accusations against a person who does not get a chance to defend himself.

It may be too ambitious to ask the world to find globally accepted standards to govern Internet content. But what we learn from the current controversy is that in the absence of such standards, website operators might have to try to be more understanding of their diverse audience to prevent the repetition of incidents that reveal the negative consequences of digital technology.

YouTube's staff might try spending time to understand the term "cultural sensitivity". I entered the words in Google's search engine and got 1,500,000 results within 0.11 seconds.

Asian News Network


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