Thai minister wants out of Web game


BANGKOK, Thailand -- The man who banned YouTube in Thailand now says he shouldn't be allowed such power and has submitted a proposal to the government that would transfer Web censorship duties to the Thai courts.

"(Blocking Web sites in Thailand) is entirely based on my judgment, which is frightening," Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, Thailand's Minister of Information and Communications Technology, said at a news conference last week.

A leading engineer with no previous government experience, Pookaiyaudom was installed as minister after a military coup ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last September.

Pookaiyaudom made international headlines in early April when he banned YouTube after the Web site owned by Google posted an online video parody of Thailand's revered monarch (HR 5/22).

Thailand has long enforced a law strictly protecting the image of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family, often jailing those who violate it.

Pookaiyaudom said he had no choice but to block all of YouTube because it did not remove the offending video immediately. He believes it was the right thing to do but does not feel the duty should be left to him.

"We must abolish this powerful law because if it's put in improper hands it can be abused so terribly," he said, adding that his children disagree with the law and that he longs for his former life in the private sector.

"I am not a competent minister in my own standard," he said at the news conference.

Many technically adept Internet users in Thailand have skirted the YouTube ban, accessing the site and the banned videos using so-called "proxy" servers located outside the country, Pookaiyaudom said.

YouTubers around the world have ridiculed the Thai ban and have posted dozens of copycat videos poking fun at the king.

Cupertino, Calif.-based YouTube "is continuing to talk regularly with the Thai government and looks forward to resolving the matter," a spokesperson said.

Pookaiyaudom said YouTube's return was imminent.

"I'll open it up as soon as possible, once the agreement has been done and (YouTube) is able to block these video clips," he said.

Google is on the verge of finding a software solution that will allow it to remove the offending videos in compliance with Thai law, Pookaiyaudom said, citing an e-mail he got this week from Google associate general council Nicole Wong.

At the news conference, Pookaiyaudom said that he has blocked a total of 200, mostly pornographic, sites since taking office, a claim flatly refuted by a an anti-censorship group also present.

C.J. Hinke, coordinator for Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, said he obtained government-issued Web site block lists not meant for public viewing.

The lists indicate that the ICT ministry blocked a total of 2,475 Web sites in October 2006, less than a month after the coup.

Now 11,329 sites are blocked, according to the most recent block list in FACT's possession, dated May 28, Hinke said, adding that about 15% of the blocked sites are political in nature.

This doesn't include the 32,500 sites that he claims the Royal Thai Police blocked in November.

At the news conference, Pookaiyaudom discounted the figures presented by Hinke and FACT, but accepted a copy of the list of sites allegedly blocked and said he will look into it.

Unsatisfied, Hinke said: "This is a wholesale attempt to manipulate public opinion by not allowing Thai people to have access to all information."