News that access to Youtube was blocked earlier this year by the Thai Information and Communication Ministry, appeared to many foreign commentators as an over-sensitive reaction to what many Westerners would consider to be plain vanilla free speech. Claiming that some videos on Youtube were offensive to His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Thai communications Minister advised that, until all offending videos were removed from Youtube, his government would have no alternative but to block all access to Youtube in the country.
Quite predictably, many media rights groups were quick to attack the military backed government, claiming that the move was nothing more than over-zealous censorship and a danger to free speech. However, Thai Minister of Information, Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, countered that he was supportive of free speech and in no mood for a lecture on the subject and that, until the offending videos were removed, he would have no alternative but to keep the embargo in place. However, Google-owned Youtube was quick to respond to the potentially damaging loss of Internet audience numbers by creating filters which stopped Thai’s from accessing any video clips which may be offensive to the monarch. Furthermore, some clips were removed by their owners and still others were removed by Youtube claiming they breached their terms of service.
But to imagine that the censorship of Youtube is a Thai government initiative alone significantly understates Google’s role in the scenario. Clearly, Google and its subsidiaries have significant commercial interests in opening up, and maintaining new markets and audiences. And these commercial interests can, and do, place the company in conflict with consumers on the issues of privacy and censorship. After all, the Thai Youtube scenario is not the first time Google has agreed to censor content as a means of gaining or maintaining access to a market. Google actively censors search results in China to ensure various blacklisted sites are not displayed. In addition, the company censors some search results containing reference to various Wikipedia content, replacing links to information with a censorship warning. Similar censorship is undertaken in Germany, where websites containing displays of Nazi emblems and holocaust denials are removed, as are some pornographic websites, including popular porn 2.0 site Youporn.com. So what does Google’s self-censorship mean for the average Internet user?
For most web surfers, a search that fails to display a link to a porn site or a video vilifying the king of Thailand would hardly be the end of the world. Other information would be found or the website or video in question could be located in another manner. But to dismiss the issue of censorship so easily misses the important point that Google is putting a price on free speech. Although one could argue that Google’s actions amount to being the greatest good for the greatest number, their actions also show that they are willing to trade free speech and human rights for profits. It makes it ever more important for human rights advocacy organisations to maintain a close eye on developments and keep up the pressure on the company to protect and nurture free speech through their