Indonesia's war against porn

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesians love pornography.

That is, according to Kosta, a jovial vendor who enthusiastically peddles sex videos at Glodok, one of Jakarta’s largest markets.

The 30-year-old displays his wares on a small cardboard stand beneath a pedestrian overpass. He hides the more racy videos behind the new releases and anime, but happily shows them to anyone who asks.

“I have films from China, Thailand, America,” he said, rifling through a stack of DVDs with plastic covers that feature big-breasted women in asset-enhancing poses. A paunchy young customer with hair that fell over his eyes feigned interest in an animated video, but eventually grabbed a handful of porno discs, flicked through them, paid and casually walked away.

A campaign by the Indonesian government to rid the country of smut has driven some vendors to ditch their stock in recent months under pressure from police and fear of arrest. On Jan. 21, the government said it would crack down on shops in Glodok after police seized more than 1,000 pornographic VCDs there in December.

An ongoing anti-pornography crusade has long stirred concerns about the growing influence in Indonesia of conservative Muslim groups. Such organizations helped push through, despite large protests by women’s groups and moderates, a controversial and sweeping anti-pornography law in 2008. But the law had been largely unenforced until recently.

On Monday, the law was used to sentence one of Indonesia’s most famous pop stars, Nazril Irham, better known as Ariel from the band Peterpan, to three and a half years in prison for filming a series of sex tapes with his celebrity girlfriends that were leaked and then widely passed around on the internet. For days, Indonesians could be seen huddled around cell phones watching the videos.

The sentence was lighter than the five years prosecutors demanded and the 12-year maximum some religious hardliners had pushed for. Reformist lawmaker Eva Kusuma Sundari has said the courts were pressured by religious groups to enforce the law.

Leading the charge has been the firebrand Minister of Information and Communication Tifatul Sembiring, who recently ordered Research In Motion, the Canadian manufacturer of the popular Blackberry smartphone, to block porn sites from the devices or have its operating license revoked.

On Jan. 17, Research in Motion agreed, saying it had installed internet content-filtering software to prevent users from accessing sites that appear during searches of porn-related keywords. The government has compiled the keyword watch list, which worries media activists who say there is no real way to check what is being filtered.

“We see this as an entry point to trap freedom of expression,” said Uni Lubis, a member of the Indonesian Press Council who fought the passage of the anti-pornography law in 2008.

Sembiring, a member of the Prosperous Justice Party, the country’s largest Muslim political party, used the example of the sex tape as fodder for his plan to clear the internet of smut by the start of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, in August of last year.

The minister said he was aware that making pornographic websites inaccessible was nearly impossible, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying. The state has a responsibility to protect its 240 million citizens, particularly children, from the dangers of pornography, he said.

Blackberry is the latest target of the government’s moral crusade, but industry analysts said there is more to the issue. In calling for the pornography filter, Sembiring also said Research in Motion should set up servers in Indonesia and start paying taxes on its operations.

Official Blackberry subscribers number around 2 million, but actual users are hard to determine, since many people use prepaid services that reduce Blackberry costs to as little as 0.55 cents a day. Though Research in Motion could not be reached for comment, a government official told the Associated Press that the company earns more than $250 million per year from the country’s 3 million Blackberry users.

Research in Motion, or RIM, said it operates within Indonesian law and pays all taxes that apply to importing manufacturers. “RIM is proud to serve the market in partnership with local operators that make significant profits from Blackberry products and services,” the company said in an official statement.

Research in Motion distributes its phones through local telecommunications providers, but unlike rivals Nokia and Samsung, it controls its networks through data centers, mostly in Canada and Britain.

The company is now locked in battles over access to its encrypted messaging service from countries worried about security, including India and Saudi Arabia. Monday, in fact, was the deadline Indian authorities had designated for the company to provide the government with access to its encrypted network.

Indonesia flirted with a similar order, saying a data center was needed to track communication sent through the handhelds by suspected criminals, but it later dropped the threat in favor of the pornography filter.

Industry analysts say Research in Motion likely complied with the filter to ensure good relations with one of its fastest-growing markets. And while the company has been unwilling to compromise on opening access to email, blocking porn will do little to harm its reputation with clients.

That argument comes as little comfort to Lubis.

“Pornography is really an [emotional] issue for people,” she said. “So using porn as an issue to block the internet, to block communication, we believe this is really just the beginning.”

Sembiring rejected charges that blocking pornographic websites violates freedoms of speech and expression protected by the Indonesian constitution. Rather, the effort is in line with several regulations, including the 2008 Information Transaction Law, which bans the distribution of pornographic material, and the anti-pornography law, which outlaws pornographic acts and images in the form of drawings, photographs, text, voice and gestures.

Critics say that law is too opaque.

“We have to clearly define what pornography is through a court decision before we can say what should be blocked,” said Ari Juliano Gema, an intellectual property lawyer who educates youth about the legal pitfalls of social networking.

He warns teens not to distribute or even forward links to indecent content since downloading pornography from the internet could land them in jail — a punishment he said is a complete misinterpretation of the law.

“This is our right as citizens, to share information,” Gema said.

Public reaction to the filter has varied from anger to mockery, with many Indonesians pointing out that plenty of other avenues remain open for accessing pornography.

Kosta said the Blackberry filter doesn’t matter because the majority of people still don’t use the expensive handhelds. Blackberry costs start at $250, far below Apple’s iPhone, $850, or Google’s Android, but still prohibitively expensive for a large portion of the country’s citizens who live near the poverty line.

Blackberry users, meanwhile, said they rely on the push email and Blackberry Messenger service that lets them ping others in their network for free. They don’t use their handhelds to access pornography, they say.

For that, they have Kosta.