No longer Thai'd down

YouTube had some explaining to do

On April 4, Internet users in Thailand trying to access YouTube instead got a message that read: "Sorry, the Web site you are accessing has been closed by Royal Thai Police due to inappropriateness."

The reason? Someone using the screen name "Paddidda" posted a video lampooning Thailand's long-serving king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is so beloved in his country, Westerners can hardly comprehend it unless they've traveled here.

Sittichai Pokaiyaudom, who enacted the block as Thailand's Minister of Information and Communications Technology, said he had no choice: "It was difficult. YouTube didn't understand the concept of the monarchy in Thailand. They said that the U.S. president had been ridiculed far worse."

It is against Thai law to insult the king in any way, a law that is strictly enforced. Just days before the YouTube block, a Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defacing public outdoor images of the king (though he was subsequently pardoned by the king himself).

Ironically, after the block was imposed, dozens more videos surfaced as a reaction to what some felt was unfair censorship. Then in early May, Pokaiyaudom announced plans to sue YouTube's parent company, Google (adding to a litany of lawsuits against the company already), claiming that the company wasn't making a strong enough effort to remove the videos. That prompted a response from a vice president with Google stating that YouTube would soon remove all of the videos deemed illegal in Thailand, and the lawsuit was dropped.

This was a relief to Thailand's many YouTube devotees. "A lot of Thais are missing this Web site," said Tulsathit Taptim, deputy chairman of the Thai Journalists Assn. and editor of the English-language newspaper the Nation. "They loved to visit it. But if the clips stay, they will understand (being barred from the site)."

Taptim believes the government handled the situation appropriately and that this wasn't a free-speech issue like China's demand to block Internet searches about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, to which Google has acquiesced. "We should separate this case from other media control issues," he said. "The Thai authorities had no choice on this one — the king is very revered. I don't think we can use the YouTube case to back allegations of free speech being threatened (in Thailand)."

Google wouldn't answer specific questions about the situation, and instead issued a general statement e-mailed from a PR agency stating that the company was "committed to addressing these questions in ways that both respect relevant laws and cultural concerns."

Pokaiyaudom said it's just a matter of days before YouTube will be accessible in Thailand again, once all the videos are removed. But he personally doesn't understand the popularity of the site.

"I'm old, but what's the use of YouTube — you can download videos, so what?" he wondered. "It's a young person's world, I guess. I'm out of it."