Press group slams Google over YouTube deal in Thailand

Google is under fire from a press watchdog group for agreeing to censor YouTube clips in Thailand

A press advocacy group is "dismayed" about Google's decision to block YouTube videos from viewers in Thailand that are considered inappropriate or illegal by that Asian government.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), calling Google's reported agreement with the Thai government "a censorship deal," said on Wednesday that the move creates "a dangerous precedent, which could have global implications for freedom of expression."

"There is a clear potential for abuse of people's right to information, which seems much more likely now [that] Google has demonstrated its willingness to collude with governments to effectively censor information," IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said in a statement.

The Thailand Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Friday and during the weekend, various news outlets reported from Bangkok that Thailand had lifted a five-month ban on YouTube for its residents after Google agreed to block videos the government finds objectionable.

In an article posted Friday, the International Herald Tribune quoted Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, Thailand's minister of information and communications technology, as saying that YouTube had agreed to block clips deemed offensive to Thai culture or that violate Thai law.

People accessing YouTube from outside of Thailand will be able to view the videos blocked in that country, the minister told the International Herald Tribune.

Thailand blocked all access to Google's YouTube, the world's most popular video-sharing site, in early April after someone posted a video the government considered insulting to the country's king.

YouTube is "pleased to hear" that access to its site has been reinstated in Thailand, a YouTube spokesman said via e-mail Wednesday.

"We appreciate the constructive dialogue we have had with the ICT [Information and Communications Technology] Ministry. YouTube remains committed to removing videos when they violate our content policies, and we will continue to work closely with authorities in Thailand," the YouTube spokesman wrote.

YouTube has taken steps to make sure that its users in Thailand will not be able to access videos that have been identified as violating the country's laws, he confirmed.

Asked if YouTube's parent company had any reaction to the IFJ's criticism, he said the question should answered by a Google official. At press time, no one from Google had responded to this question.

Those found guilty of offending the monarchy face serious penalties in Thailand. Days before the YouTube incident, a Swiss national living in Thailand got slapped with a 10-year jail sentence for defacing images of the king.

This is the latest incident in which Google and other providers of Internet services, such as Yahoo and Microsoft, find themselves criticized for censorship by human rights organizations, press advocacy groups, U.S. legislators and shareholders.

For example, several Internet companies have been criticized for agreeing to censor content in their China sites and search engines that the Chinese government finds objectionable.

Yahoo in particular has been blasted often for cooperating with the Chinese government and providing information that has led to the arrest of dissidents and journalists.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others invariably defend themselves saying that they must comply with the local laws of the countries in which they do business, and that governments must collaborate to establish international standards of operation.

"We always welcome constructive discussions with local governments around the world on similar issues. We are committed to addressing these questions in ways that both respect relevant laws and cultural concerns and are consistent with our global content policies," the YouTube spokesman wrote.

When it comes to content that may break local laws, YouTube works with local authorities to resolve the issues. "We think this approach strikes the right balance between freedom of expression and respect for local law," he wrote.

Thailand recently introduced the Computer Crime Act, which gives authorities the power to seize the computers of people suspected of accessing or creating content deemed insulting or pornographic, according to the IFJ.

Activist, social worker and webmaster Sombat Bun-ngam-anong is currently serving a 12-day detention order for alleged defamation for violating the Act, the IFJ said in Wednesday's statement.

Also on Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders, another international press watchdog group, reported that a Thai blogger named Pichai has been reportedly detained for the past 12 days, also for violating the Act, which this group says took effect on July 18.

The blogger's arrest "confirms our fears about the dangers of a law that is supposed to combat pornography but turns out to be a way of restricting and controlling press freedom," Reporters Without Borders charged.

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