Less than two years after Indonesia introduced a set of controversial internet laws, officials have plans to deploy new methods to enforce them, including charging what could amount to thousands of dollars in fines to platform companies that refuse to take down content considered “unlawful” by government authorities.
The plan, which was detailed in internal presentations given to leading tech companies operating in the country, copies of which were obtained and reviewed by Rest of World, offer a window into how Indonesia plans to implement some of its harshest laws governing digital platforms and content moderation. The plan comes amid a growing number of other countries in the region tightening controls over how social media platforms operate within their boundaries. In recent years, Indonesia has joined countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where the governments have proposed or are using legal and bureaucratic tools to deploy harsh cyber laws to impede the individual rights of civilians.
In early January, the local teams of global tech companies such as Google, Meta, Twitter, and ByteDance received an invitation for a two-day virtual meeting with Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, also known as Kominfo. Joined by high-profile regional e-commerce and telco companies, they gathered on Zoom to listen to a presentation by Teguh Arifiyadi, a ministry official, about the government’s plan to enforce its updated internet laws, namely the Law Regarding Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE Law), Government Regulation 71 (GR 71), and Ministerial Regulation 5 (MR5).
During the meeting, Arifiyadi told attendees that each of the companies would have to register as a Private Scope Electronic Systems Operator (PSE) in Indonesia. Once registered, platforms would then be obliged to take down any content the government deems “unlawful” — a broad label that could apply to everything from pornography to making fun of the president.
According to a senior official at a social media platform that attended the meeting, Arifiyadi told the gathering that companies that failed to comply within the turnaround time could face fines or risk getting blocked — a fact confirmed by presentation slides from the program seen by Rest of World. One estimate for the first offense, according to calculations based on another presentation document shared with Rest of World by Arifiyadi, could reach as much as $33,000 per violation.
The latest version of the document, which was finalized after the January meeting, details indexes for calculating fines based on the company’s gross revenues, compliance rate, and types of content, among other indicators. The new measures outlined in the document dictate that once companies are notified of a takedown notice, they have 24 hours to take down content, and just four hours to take down content labeled as “urgent.” (After publishing this story, Kominfo told Rest of World that they may revise the deadlines in a future iteration of the regulations.)
The social media platform official, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals by authorities, said that the meeting’s participants — particularly those working for social media companies — were shocked. Definitions surrounding “prohibited content” were too broad, and if implemented on the thousands of pieces of content each platform churns out every day, they could be forced to pay hundreds of million dollars overnight, significantly impacting operating costs in the country.
“We told Kominfo that vague definitions in the regulation would create confusion among businesses and a murky investment climate… [but] they seemed to hear us half-heartedly,” the platform official told Rest of World.
Rofi Uddarojat, who heads public policy and government relations at the Indonesian E-commerce Association and regularly attends meetings with Kominfo regarding the regulation, told Rest of World he also raised concerns about the proposed changes. “We wanted a clear format and standard for takedown requests and a maximum limit for the number of those requests,” he said.
Despite Uddarojat’s concerns, documents seen by Rest of World indicate that, while some changes were made, Kominfo pushed through with the same maximum fine.
Indonesia’s new content moderation regulation is one of the strictest digital censorship laws in the region. MR5 came into effect in 2020 and the GR 71 in 2019, but specific measures were needed to make the laws binding. Several government agencies including Kominfo, the Ministry of Finance, and the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs then drafted the necessary requirements, according to an attendee of the Kominfo meeting. Kominfo announced its collaboration with the finance ministry in an official statement. The finance ministry and Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs did not respond to Rest of World’s requests for comment. Google, Meta, and Twitter declined to comment.
“It is simply about expanding state power in cyberspace,” said Gatra Priyandita, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Priyandita said that the law will hurt smaller tech companies that have fewer resources to ensure timely moderation. But, even the world’s biggest tech platforms could face challenges, particularly if they are requested to take down information concerning issues that are taboo in Indonesia, but not in the U.S., such as conversations around the LGBTQIA community or West Papua, Priyandita added.
“Having to respond a lot more quickly and without court orders makes it a lot more complicated for the bigger tech firms,” he said. “Four hours is a bit tight… if there’s a lot of requests to take down information at the same time, I guess it will bog down the company in question.”
Kominfo is known to have requested takedowns for thousands of pieces of content in a month, sometimes more, according to internal transparency reports by leading tech companies. Between June and December 2021, Kominfo asked Google to delist over 500,000 URLs across its search engine, the company’s transparency report showed. (The company eventually delisted only .03 percent of the requested URLs.) Twitter reported that it received legal demands to remove content from nearly 30,000 accounts between July and December 2021. The senior official at a social media platform who attended the January meeting also confirmed to Rest of World that Kominfo asked his company to take down thousands of pieces of content at one time. Under the new regulation, that could translate to millions in fines. The ministry’s document also stipulates that if a platform fails to take down content, Kominfo would double, then triple the fines, before eventually blocking the platform.
“Before [the new measures], platforms were able to reject the government’s requests if they are not aligned with the companies’ own policies,” Nenden Sekar Arum, the head of freedom of expression division at the digital rights-focused nonprofit SAFEnet explained. “Now, if they did that they would be sanctioned.”
Indonesia has tightened regulation around speech and information over the last several years, particularly during sensitive political events. In 2019, the government shut down the internet in Papua and West Papua during anti-racism protests in the provinces, a move that was challenged, in part, by SAFEnet and later deemed to be illegal by a panel of judges at the Jakarta State Administrative Court. That same year, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram were blocked for at least one day after election-related riots in Jakarta. Political opponents have also been arrested under the country’s controversial ITE law.
In July 2022, Indonesia temporarily blocked several platforms — including Paypal and Yahoo, and gaming sites such as Steam, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, and Epic Games, among others — over their failure to join the government’s licensing system, which is also part of the new content moderation measures. The move sparked outrage on social media, with many individuals and civil society groups pushing the hashtag #BlokirKominfo (Block Kominfo) on Twitter. Freelancers and small businesses who rely on PayPal to receive payments were impacted, according to Sindikasi, a nonprofit organization focused on media and creative industry workers.
Yahoo, Steam, and Epic Games did not respond to requests for comment. A PayPal spokesperson said in an email that they have connected directly with Kominfo, and have at this point registered as an ESO in Indonesia. “We regret any disruption our customers may have experienced last weekend,” the spokesperson said.
Priyandita, the policy analyst, believes one factor driving the Indonesian government’s crackdown on companies could potentially be economics, and that the new regulation may be an effort to encourage tech companies to set up bigger shops in Indonesia. “I suspect, yes, maybe Meta and Google will have to expand their Indonesian teams for content moderation,” he added.
Tech businesses are wary, and for now, treading carefully. “Let’s say we only have the resources to take down 100 requests, but then suddenly there are 1,000 requests,” Uddarojat, the e-commerce association’s public policy lead, said. “We could collapse.”