Indonesia's President Jokowi looked every bit the progressive leader on his visit to Silicon Valley in the US this week as he encouraged the use of social media to spread messages of peace and democracy, and even played a round of virtual ping-pong with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But back home in Jakarta, the usual arguments were being had over censorship, pornography, and LGBT issues.
The president stopped by the offices of Google, Twitter and Facebook this week to discuss ways in which the tech giants can help Indonesia implement government programs, support small and medium enterprises, and foster a digital start-up culture. Some of this is already happening: e-commerce is booming in Indonesia, and a healthy start-up culture has sprouted in Jakarta's Slipi district, earning it the nickname 'Slipicon Valley'. Google is a partner in Indonesia's fight against illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing practices, and is planning to bring internet access to Indonesia's most remote areas via its Project Loon. Facebook last year brought free (but very limited) internet access to Indonesia via its Internet.org initiative. Twitter is now in discussions with Indonesia about assisting with early detection of terrorist or extremist content on its platform.
Jokowi sees the digital economy as key for growth in Indonesia and the ASEAN Economic Community. As a leader who very quickly rose to national prominence from regional obscurity, he also understands well the potential of digital media to spread political messages. From California this week, the president urged Twitter to spread messages of peace, tolerance, democracy and good governance. At Facebook headquarters, he left a handwritten note: 'together in peace and harmony'. Such messages, he said, could provide a counter-narrative to those spread online by terrorist groups like Islamic State, which claimed last month's deadly attack in central Jakarta.
But back in Jakarta, government figures this week appeared less concerned about digital media's potential for bringing peace and prosperity, and more concerned about its potential to spread content deemed inappropriate by national censors.
Following a review by the Communications and Information Technology Ministry's pornography panel (apparently such a thing exists), a decision was made this week to ban microblogging site Tumblr on the basis of alleged pornographic content and references to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) relationships. The move sparked public outrage and the Ministry quickly withdrew the decision, maintaining that it would still ask Tumblr to remove the offending material from its site.
Platforms for user-generated content like Tumblr pose tricky problems for Indonesia's censors. The suggestion to ban the site outright, as in the case of Reddit and Vimeo, has in this case been vocally rejected by the public, perhaps because Tumblr has already gained a popular following in Indonesia. Meanwhile, filtering out only the content deemed inappropriate is a near-impossible task that would require close cooperation with the host site. Tumblr has yet to comment on how it will respond to the government's censorship demands, including concerns about its LGBT content.
Online pornography has been a preoccupation of Indonesian censors since the introduction of the controversial Anti-Pornography Law in 2008. But the focus on LGBT relationships reflects a more recent moral panic over this minority community in Indonesia. A call to ban LGBT groups on university campuses last month has been followed by mounting public debate on the issue. Just last week, same-sex emojis and stickers were removed from offerings in Indonesia by instant messaging service Line under pressure from the Communications Ministry. This week, Security Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan became one of the few government figures to speak up for LGBT rights, only to add that homosexuality was a disease that needed to be cured.
The more Indonesia engages with social media and develops its digital economy, the more these types of debates over censorship and values are likely to emerge. It will be interesting to see how all sides adapt in the interests of living 'together in peace and harmony'.
Photo by Flickr user Ignatius Win Tanuwidjaja.