When I was walking in Quiapo, an old town in Manila, Philippines, I met a hijab (headscarf) seller who came from Mindanau.

She told me, “I sell hijab to collect money to buy some of cell phones which I will take to Saudi Arabia. I want to sell the cell phones to Indonesian migrant workers who work there. I pity them. A lot of their employees don’t allow them to use phones.”

Every day, numerous social network platforms feature poems and short stories written by migrant workers. Sometimes the writer apologizes, “I’m sorry if my piece is not neat. I sent it through my cell phone’s internet connection.” How many migrant workers managed to get out of their terrible working conditions thanks to the immediacy of internet connections?

Thanks to the immediacy of internet connections, a lot of career women can still monitor their children, who live at home, by using video call facilities. A friend of mine, who often travels abroad, installed a closed-circuit television (CCTV) at her office for monitoring purposes.

Prita Mulyasari, who faced a defamation lawsuit after she complained about a medical malpractice she experienced at a local hospital, enjoyed public support through social network platforms. Writers exchange works and inspirations through social networks – ditto musicians, painters and dancers.

Traders are the ones who get the biggest advantage from the internet as they can sell their products online.

Cancer survivors join online support groups. They can also seek and obtain information about their illness as well as having a consultation with their physicians through the web.

The internet connects migrant workers with their family members in their homelands, their colleagues and other people. Internet connections enable us to provide proper and timely assistance to other people. The internet unites compassion with knowledge.

The utilization of internet is linked closely with every aspect of citizen’s lives and their basic rights. The state should manage the internet – just like what it is supposed to do for water and earth – for its citizens’ diverse necessities. The state should not control the internet to cater to the interests of a few capital owners, dominant political forces or beliefs / ideology.

A question arises: who has the right to control internet access? Under what framework should we control the internet?

The Power of XL and Kominfo

“Dear subscriber, we have blocked the access to the site you’re trying to open in compliance to the law. We apologize for any inconveniences that it causes. Please try again.” A sentence saying “ACCESS BLOCKED” written in big captions is strewn below the message. The page visitor can see the emblem of Communication and Information Technology Ministry (Menkominfo) slapped near the message.

You can see the above mentioned message when you open http://www.ourvoice.or.id/, the website of Ourvoice Indonesia, an NGO promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, through XL Axiata, a prominent internet connection provider in Indonesia. The provider did not give advance information to Ourvoice Indonesia about the blockade. Providers can block websites as easy as pinning a brooch in our clothing. How will you respond if, all of a sudden, you discover the ‘brooch’ in your personal blog, website, or the online news portal of your employer? We need to take serious action to respond to the blockade of Ourvoice Indonesia’s website because if it can happen to Ourvoice’s web, it can happen to any web in the country.

Ourvoice Indonesia is a non-governmental organization that develops a web-based alternative media to promote human rights protection, especially for LGBT citizens.

Ourvoice’s website presents news on tolerance, diversity and democracy in Indonesia. Some of its articles discussed about the children of the persecuted Shia Muslim community, the premiere of a movie about HIV/ AIDS entitled Cinta dari Wamena (Love from Wamena), as well as organizations lending their support to gay marriage.

A lot of Ourvoice’s readers have voiced their concern over the website’s blockade in social networks. Their grievance is understandable, considering the fact that a lot of mainstream media in Indonesia have not provided information on topics related to the rights of minority groups, which often suffer from discrimination. As of July 11, Ourvoice’s website had been accessed 308,335 times, with 300 to 400 visitors per day.

Ourvoice Indonesia secretary-general Hartoyo have sent numerous e-mails to XL’s representatives to demand that they provide explanation about the blockade. XL’s costumer service department responded by sending an e-mail explaining that the provider has blocked Ourvoice’s website in compliance to Menkominfo’s orders, which considered the website to be pornographic.

Then Hartoyo sent a letter and a text message to Menkominfo’s public relations officer. The officer replied that the ministry did not order the website blockade, despite the fact that its logo is slapped on the message informing visitors about the website’s closure.

It’s time for citizens to take control of the internet

If Menkominfo’s claims that it did not order the blockade of Ourvoice’s website is true, it shows that the state has a very weak bargaining power over private-owned providers. If Menkominfo, as a state institute, will be powerless if it allows XL to arbitrarily block websites by using the institution’s name.

When a state institution is powerless, who will assume responsibility of Indonesian citizens’ freedom to express themselves through the internet?

Aside from XL, other providers such as Indosat and Telkomsel also take part in blocking Ourvoice Indonesia’s website. And providers do not only block Ourvoice’s site, but also a number of other websites voicing concerns over human rights in Indonesia.

Providers threaten Indonesia citizens’ freedom of expression and obtaining information by blocking websites. All aspects of Indonesians’ lives are now connected to the internet. They need to access the web to fulfill numerous needs from the basic ones such as health, education and work, to the secondary ones like the arts, religion and intellectual activities. They use the internet to have consultation with other people, find a support group, etcetera. How can the state ignore something that is related to so many people’s lives?

If state actors or private companies monopolize the internet, they might impose their ideology as a criterion in controlling the internet, which might result in discriminatory acts that will endanger citizens’ lives. Therefore, citizens must assume an active role in controlling the internet to ensure that nobody will be discriminated against in the internet because of his or her faith, religion, ideology or sexual orientation.

It’s time for concerned citizens to hold hands and conduct dialogues to discuss about the measures that they will take to cooperate with state or private actors in controlling the internet and deal with website blockades. Citizens and organizations who suffer from discriminations, human rights watchdogs and internet experts should come together with Ourvoice and other websites that are blocked to negotiate the blockade with state and private actors.

This article was originally published in the website Voice of Human Rights Indonesia with the title in Bahasa “Kendali Internet di Republik Hari Ini”

Dewi Nova Wahyuni (translation by Sebastian Partogi)

Dewi Nova Wahyuni is the author of Perempuan Kopi (Coffee Woman).

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