Tifatul’s Surprise Vimeo Ban Raises Freedom Concerns

Minister of Communications and Information Tifatul Sembiring. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Minister of Communications and Information Tifatul Sembiring. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Jakarta. Indonesia’s film and tech communities gasped collectively on Monday when Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring tweeted from his personal account that video sharing site Vimeo would be banned.

As the week wore on, anger mingled with bafflement as some Internet service providers (ISPs) blocked the site while others did not. The ministry refrained from clarifying its position.

Artists and filmmakers have long seen the decade-old, New York-based site — a pioneer in high definition playback — as a refined alternative to YouTube.

“If YouTube is a hawker food court, then Vimeo is a café,” acclaimed Indonesian stop motion animator Wahyu Ichwandardi, better known as Pinot, told the Jakarta Globe.

The ban came at a moment when films made in Indonesia had begun to attract attention on the world stage, with Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” joining the ranks of the most acclaimed documentaries of all time, Daniel Ziv’s “Jalanan” taking the victory for best documentary at the Busan festival in South Korea and Gareth Evans’ martial arts thriller, “The Raid 2,” showing on big screens around the globe.

“Every filmmaker in the world uses Vimeo to share work with colleagues,” Oppenheimer said in an email. “Banning it is like banning Microsoft Word because pornographers use it to write scripts, or Excel because they use it to make their production budgets.”

‘Difficult not to get emotional’

Tifatul tweeted on Monday that the site had been blacklisted for hosting pornographic content.

A Ministry of Communications and Information press release on Monday listed the bizarre search terms the ministry had used to come to its decision: “Nudie Cutie,” “Art of Nakedness” and “Beautiful of Nakedness [sic].”

“Vimeo does allow nudity in some non-sexual and creative contexts, but doesn’t allow pornography. We rely on our users to flag violating content for our moderators,” Vimeo spokeswoman Jessica Casano-Antonellis said.

Tifatul, a staunch anti-pornography crusader and former head of the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), joined President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet as part of the Democrat-lead ruling coalition after the 2009 election and has sought to tighten government control over the Internet ever since.

In a speech on the Muslim holiday of Idul Ahda in 2009, he blamed a devastating Sumatra earthquake and other natural disasters on what he said was the moral degradation of society, indicated by the prevalence of pornography.

During his tenure, the ministry has blacklisted thousands of porn sites under a controversial anti-pornography law passed in 2008.

In March of this year, he caused an uproar by following a pornographic twitter account, which he said he had done by accident.

Earlier this week, he provoked anger with a seemingly flippant response to a question on Twitter about a website expressing support for Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram — responsible for thousands of killings and the recent kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls.

Twitter users wondered why he was willing to block sites like Vimeo while blowing off requests to censor pro-terrorism sites.

Some critics accused him of banning the video site over a fake campaign film making fun of the PKS.

“There is no connection with that, don’t be too narrow-minded, people just made it up,” he responded. He said politics had nothing to do with the ban.

“Blocking Vimeo is an example of a government decisions that aims to educate but is done in a very stupid way,” Pinot said. “This is evidence that the Indonesian government does not have sufficient insight and knowledge to make these decisions. Their arguments increasingly show how low their understanding of information technology really is.”

Oppenheimer said the ban threatened the strength of Indonesian democracy.

“There is no place in a democracy for banning the tools that we use for the free exchange of ideas and information, whether Vimeo or other social media,” he said. “If the government is eager to live down the image of thuggery and intimidation that we see in ‘The Act of Killing,’ this is certainly not the way to go about it.”

If Indonesia let the ban remain in place, he said, more censorship could follow.

“The ban on entire platforms — rather than on individual films — is particularly alarming, because it’s easy to imagine that social media will be next,” he said.

Aulia Masna, the chief editor at DailySocial, a leading Indonesian tech blog, said he found it “very difficult not to get emotional” over the news.

“The fact that a small range of nudity and sexually suggestive videos exist on a public service that does not actually promote such themes should not form the basis of a blanket censorship that involves the banning of the entire service,” he said. “It’s entirely possible that the very logic and reason that drove this decision will be used to block other services such as Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, or even Google. You can easily discover porn and nudity on any of those services if you know the terms. These are content platforms for the public to use and the public will use them in any way they like.”

He said creative industries would suffer without government support for Internet innovation.

“Banning Vimeo entirely is affecting people whose livelihoods depend on having access to the service such as advertising professionals, students, educators, journalists, filmmakers, animators, and so on,” he said. “This decision to ban Vimeo entirely is akin to banning DVD players because there’s porn on DVD.”

Meninaputri Wismurti, director of Jakarta’s underground Q! film festival, which celebrates gay and lesbian cinema, said the ban would stand in the way of filmmakers, many already on the margins.

“This decision will apply to my film festival,” she said. “Why? Because we received films from international filmmakers through this website. If the ministry is insisting on blocking the website, then it will limit our moves and way of getting good films internationally.”

The US embassy in Jakarta expressed concern over the decision.

“In the debate on Internet freedom, the United States is on the side of openness,” embassy spokesman Troy Pederson said. “When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices anywhere in the world, the Internet is diminished for all.”

Seorang karyawan menonton video di vimeo. JG Photo/Safir Makki

Vimeo remained accessible through some Indonesian ISPs on Thursday, despite a ban announced on Monday. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

‘Talk first, ban later’

Critics were just as confused by the announcement as they were angered; some ISPs banned the site while others did not.

Vimeo itself seemed to have no idea what was going on.

“What’s the latest from Indonesia? Is Vimeo accessible or blocked? Keep us posted!” the company tweeted on Tuesday.

The Indonesian Internet Service Provider Association (APJII) on Monday said that the ban was coming into effect sporadically as ISPs updated their lists of banned sites. But by Thursday, some providers still had not banned the site and others had lifted their bans.

Indonesian news portal Tempo reported that the ministry was reconsidering its decision, but as of Thursday afternoon Tifatul had not made a definitive statement.

On Monday, he tweeted that the ministry would be willing to work with the site to remove offending content, which would take away the need for ban — similar to the accommodation the ministry reached with YouTube after it was blocked briefly in 2008.

“We’re still evaluating our options. It’s a tricky situation!” Vimeo said, in response to a tweet from the Jakarta Globe.

“We received a letter of notification from the Republic of Indonesia’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology requesting Vimeo block and/or remove pornographic material from being accessible in Indonesia on our site. We are looking into the matter and hope to resume service for the affected users,” Vimeo spokeswoman Casano-Antonellis said.

Donny B.U., executive director of Internet rights group ICT Indonesia, said that the ban had never gone into full effect because service providers saw it as poorly conceived.

“Some ISPs already unblocked Vimeo, or just simply choose not to ban at all from the beginning,” he said. “With the public pressure, especially when the minister is not a kind of walk-the-talk person regarding this issue, I believe most of the ISPs already realized that the banning request was not based on proper reason and procedure.”

Enricko Luckman, a writer for Tech in Asia, said that the government should have reached out to Vimeo before blocking the site.

“I just hope that they would use the ‘talk first, ban later’ approach for special cases like Vimeo,” he said.

Aulia of DailySocial said the poor implementation of the ban was as revealing as the ban itself.

“The fact that… not all ISPs and carriers received the instructions at the same time… speaks volumes of the quality of the organization and personnel,” he said. “I can only hope that the next government has no such people holding key positions.

“It’s almost like [the Communications Ministry] has no interest in catching up with the best in the world as quickly as it can with regards to technological progress.”

  • Bimbo

    I think that pretty much everybody outside of Indonesia’s current failed and corrupt government, realises that Tifatul Sembiring is a complete waste of space. He has achieved absolutely nothing. He has done nothing whatsoever to improve the countries internet service. Placing this man in his position was just another payout by Yudhoyono, with no concern at all for the good of the country, only his own and his partys selfish agenda. The sooner the better these people are gone.

  • Me

    Islamic tyranny at work. The world has no use for these Religious fanatics. Decision making like this is cause for removal from power immediately! Nothing should be banned! its people choice! Governments role is only to maintain survives for the people that is all. No one needs them to manage their lives and make choices for them. This World needs a big wake up! Radical Islam = EVIL!

  • Jakartass

    I ‘interviewed’ him two and a half years ago, since when I’ve been pleased to note that he lowered his profile: wwwDOTjakartass.net/2010/11/tifatul-sembiring-the-jakartass-interview-2/ .

    It’s a great shame that he’s won a seat in the new parliament because he’ll continue to substantially lower the collective IQ in the corridors of power.

  • moralmajority

    I wish we can just do what we want, when we want and where we want. Blocking certain website because it has porn on it doesn’t even make sense. He blame the natural disaster on porn while in US or Canada they have porn on normal television and yet there is no natural disaster happening there. As a minister of IT he should be ashamed of his comment.

  • a human

    Does he get replaced after this coming election?