Sunday, 23 October 2016

Off-Topic: Internet Censorship

On October 13th, 2016 King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died. He had the honour of being the world's longest reigning monarch, having been in power since 1946. In comparison, Queen Elizabeth of England has only reigned since 1952. I know very little about this king, except that he was greatly revered by his people. There's nothing wrong with that. I also have the greatest respect for my own Queen.

I wouldn't have commented on his passing if not for news reports I've read in the last few days. A woman who allegedly insulted the king in an online post was forced to bow to a photo of the king in public while crowds jeered her. I haven't been able to find the exact words she posted that triggered this public humiliation, but I've read that she didn't criticise King Bhumibol himself, she merely questioned the suitability of his heir, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, to succeed him. I can relate to that. If Queen Elizabeth were to die today I would have sincere doubts about Prince Charles' suitability to become king.

I believe in freedom of speech. That means the freedom to voice opinions that are different to my own. If someone posted things about Queen Elizabeth that I considered to be insulting or even factually incorrect I would be outraged, but I would respect the person's right to say what he thinks. In my eyes it would present an opportunity to discuss the merits of his words and analyse whether there is any truth to them. Maybe the criticisms made by the Thai woman, whose name I don't even know, were valid. Maybe they weren't. To me that's irrelevant. It was wrong to subject her to public humiliation in this way.

In Thailand there is a law that anyone who insults the king or his heir can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. That's a typical law for any corrupt dictatorship that's afraid of criticism for its rulers. Those of us who live in free countries have to be thankful that we can say whatever we like, usually, and we have to fight for this right whenever we see it eroded in practise. The company Google doesn't see it this way. Google has chosen to support Thailand's government in its suppression of free speech. The Thai government has made complaints about "insulting material" in YouTube and as search engine results, which Google will investigate and possibly remove. According to a report on the BBC's web site, Google has previously complied with 85% of the Thai government's complaints. What does this mean? If it means that YouTube videos are removed, YouTube belongs to Google and has already degraded in quality since it was bought by Google in 2006, so censorship of video content is no surprise to anybody. But what does the complaints about search engine results mean? Will those results be removed, hidden from the search engine for which Google is most famous? That would be a terrible blight on the freedom of information on the Internet.

I call upon Google to rethink its policy of appeasing tin-pot dictatorships in the third world. Freedom of speech should always have priority over national laws. Internet censorship is always wrong, whatever or whoever the censorship is intended to protect.

It's praiseworthy to note that King Bhumibol himself didn't accept the laws protecting him. In 2005 he held a speech in which he said:

"Actually, I must also be criticised. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the king cannot be criticised, it means that the king is not human. If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the king is not being treated as a human being. But the king can do wrong".

These are noble words. Obviously the military dictators who have used him as a figurehead for the last 70 years are less noble and reject his opinion. It's in their own selfish interests to punish anyone who speaks out against the royal family. It's in their own misogynist interests to carry on humiliating women in public. The king himself, if he returned to life, would be ashamed of the way this woman was treated in his name. He would kneel on the floor before her and beg her forgiveness.

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