Banning Web-Based Services Wouldn't Work

July 16, 2017

Background

Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Informatics, Kemenkominfo, decided to ban Telegram messaging service[1]. According to the circulating news, the Minister of Communication and Informatics (Menkominfo), Rudiantara, decided to ban the messaging service for the purpose of fighting against terrorism.

The announcement of this policy was responded with protests from the Indonesian netizens, and a Change.org user Dodi IR started a petition to stop Kemenkominfo from proceeding with the Telegram ban[2].

Signed by more than 15 thousand people

It’s not the first time Kemenkominfo bans a popular service. In 2014, during Tifatul Sembiring’s reign as the Menkominfo, Kemenkominfo banned Vimeo, Reddit, and Imgur[3].

Beginning of the Legend

Tifatul Sembiring rose to the position of Menkominfo in 2009, at the beginning of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second period as the president. Tifatul Sembiring is widely known as the minister who fought for the safe and healthy Indonesian Internet, by banning access to porn sites[4]. He was also promoting self-control for the Indonesian netizens, as he said that the best porn filter is our own selves[5].

While what Tifatul Sembiring was trying to achieve wasn’t exactly regarded as something bad by the people of Indonesia, the positive Internet (Internet Positif) movement created by Tifatul wasn’t considered as the wisest choice for the then-Menkominfo to focus his energy on.

Indonesian Internet and communication infrastructure hasn’t been very good, as the Internet access in Indonesia has been among the slowest ones in the world. Many people expected Tifatul to focus on the infrastructure instead of the pornography issues. In 2014, Tifatul initiated a conversation with Indonesian netizens on Twitter with a question[6]: “What would you guys use fast Internet connection for?”.

The question itself was quite innocent, and in a way seemed like a curious question from Tifatul to Indonesian netizens who had been pestering him to focus on Internet infrastructure instead of pornography. But a lot of people interpreted the question as Tifatul not understanding the benefits of fast Internet connection.

Towards the end of his reign as Menkominfo in 2014, Kemenkominfo under Tifatul banned Vimeo, Reddit, and Imgur under the claims that those sites provides pornographic materials accessible to the users. The ban hasn’t been lifted until this day for Reddit and Vimeo.

Rudiantara’s Era

Having Tifatul steps down from his position as Menkominfo and Rudiantara as the new minister, Indonesian netizens were hoping for a better direction regarding the Indonesian Internet. But as Rudiantara was determined to strengthen the pornographic and Internet ban filter[7][8] instead of shifting his focus somewhere else, some netizens started to sound pessimistic regarding the new Menkominfo’s upcoming era.

Rudiantara also extended the ban to manga sites[9] early in his reign. As President Joko Widodo’s era is full of people publishing hate speech and fake news on the Internet, Rudiantara also decided to ban the sites publishing those kinds of content[10].

The ban of hate speech and fake news sites gained positive response from a segment in the society and negative response from the others. Many of the articles are promoting hate towards people of a certain ethnicity or believers of a certain religion, or provoking the people to revolt against the government. Other than this, seems like there’s not much difference between the ban enforced by Tifatul and the ban enforced by Rudiantara.

Does Banning Really Work?

Well, to save you the time: no, it doesn’t.

Before going further, there’s this hilarious video by Rong Rong, a Malaysian animator, regarding Internet Positif.

Here’s another video from Rong Rong regarding Indonesian media censorship in general.

It’s easy to bypass the bans using VPN, DNSCrypt, or simply using a HTTP proxy from a region where the ban doesn’t apply. Lately, simply setting up our DNS server to Google DNS doesn’t always solve the problem. But a few years ago it’s an easy solution almost anybody can do and doesn’t take any network performance toll.

I also built a HTTP proxy tester and automatic switcher that I shared with my friends on my years as an undergraduate student to help them get around this banning rule. It isn’t so difficult for a college student with a bit of knowledge in programming and HTTP protocol to build a tool meant to defeat the bans and share the tool with their inner circle. So we can always bet there are lots of better tools available on the Internet built by more skilled people and might be a lot easier to use.

I’m writing this post while using Telegram web client from Telegram’s site that’s supposed to be unaccessible from my network. How? I’ve been using DNSCrypt for years since the Reddit ban by the Kemenkominfo, and it happens to work against anything that’s using DNS-based filters.

Anybody determined enough to get around government-enforced filters will manage to get around it.

Conclusion

Banning web services isn’t really a good solution for any problem, considering there are a lot of possible ways to get around the filters.

I personally think that Rudiantara’s reasons of banning hate speech and fake news sites, along with Telegram is not really a bad thing. Hate speech and fake news sites are indeed causing troubles by making our people fight with each other over racial and religious matters, and in the long term that could be really harmful to the country’s stability. But banning the sites wouldn’t really solve the problem, and even if the people producing the contents couldn’t publish it from those sites anymore they will always find a way to spread hate and lies.

The banning of Telegram, while motivated by the good intention to protect the citizens from terrorist attacks, wouldn’t stop the terrorists from find another way to communicate securely. If everything else fails, they can simply use PGP to communicate with each other over common unsecured channels.

National security is a valid reason for a minister to worry about. But before taking any action that might backfire, maybe it’s a good thing to calm down and think if the actions we’re going to take will really solve the problem. Otherwise, it’s not going to be effective while having our own citizens’ trust in the government plummets.

References

[1] Ini Alasan Pemerintah Blokir Telegram
[2] Batalkan pemblokiran aplikasi chat Telegram
[3] Kemelut pemblokiran Vimeo di Indonesia, Reddit dan Imgur juga bernasib sama
[4] Tifatul Sembiring Blokir Satu Juta Situs Porno
[5] Blokir Situs Porno Paling Ampuh dari Diri Sendiri
[6] Menkominfo: Kalau Internetnya Cepat Mau Dipakai buat Apa?
[7] Menkominfo Baru Lanjutkan Blokir Situs Porno
[8] Menkominfo akan Perkuat ‘Tembok’ Situs Porno
[9] Menkominfo Rudiantara bicara seputar pemblokiran konten pornografi dan manga, serta insentif untuk pemain IT di Indonesia
[10] Kominfo Blokir 11 Situs yang Dinilai Berbau SARA

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