Net Censorship: Indonesia Battling Online Pornography

At 11pm, a young man entered, an internet café close to a famous intersection in Yogyakarta. Once assigned a booth, he locked the booth’s flap door. Invisible from outside, he put the provided headset on, opened the Firefox browser and typed in the browser’s address bar. He downloaded several videos and visited several other porn sites. After two hours in the booth, he went out and paid.

For a two-hour session, he spent 8,000 Indonesian Ruppiah (72 US cents). (Indonesia is cheap compared to most countries. A modem can be purchased for only $15, Indonesian carriers offer $2.50 tariffs for a monthly 2GB data package on a 3G network and a basic tablet $120.) He didn’t have to pay for the several videos he had downloaded and saved to his Flash disk.

The young man is just one of the growing legion of Indonesian internet users. The total is estimated to reach 82 million in 2013, 107 million in 2014, and 139 million in 2015 – half of the country’s total population. Normally, nobody would want their online sex-related activities be known to anyone. “But nobody knows him here and he doesn’t have to be ashamed of his sex-related browsing history,” said Andi, the manager.

People are now going to internet cafés in Indonesia to find porn sites because they don’t know how to do it with their home modems. Andi’s place doesn’t block anything so visitors are free to visit any site.

“Nowadays people rarely go to the internet café,” Andi said. “Laptops and modems are getting cheaper. They can also buy a tablet or an Android phone for less than one million Rupiah ($90). They can browse or chat from home. But people who look for X-rated videos and also free movies bring lots of money here. Besides the session fee, they usually also purchase snacks and drinks.”

Internet service providers in Indonesia censor porn, gambling, phishing and malware sites. By default, the five major carriers, namely Indosat, XL Axiata, Telkomsel, Three and Smartfren, block porn and dangerous sites on their networks. A normal home user wanting these services won’t be able to open blacklisted sites. In 2010, for example, Indosat, the biggest Indonesian data carrier, initiated censorship of pornographic content. The company launched a free program called netSAFE for its popular IM2 broadband 3G service. netSAFE comes installed as a default blocking feature in all Indosat products and can be changed only by authorised users. But users with higher levels of internet literacy can always find an easy way to get rid of this censorship.

When a GSM card of a particular provider is inserted into a home modem, the modem automatically sets that carrier’s DNS server address as its default. By changing the default DNS to, for example, Google’s, the blocking is lifted and porn sites will show up.

Carriers’ censorship moves are apparently unable to keep up with the pace of online pornography. While identifying porn sites is quite easy, it is more difficult to prevent users from accessing sex-related internet applications.

One can easily access Camfrog, the chat room known for its permissive regulations. Yahoo! Messenger was once known as a hub for sex-related conversations. Censorship is also helpless against pornography on social media. Data carriers offer social media-specific packages and with these packages, customers are only able to access social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but accounts with explicit sexual content – mostly fake accounts –  can be easily found and accessed.

In 2011, there were protests against RIM in Indonesia for explicit content distributed freely through its popular BlackBerry Messenger. Indonesia is one of the top five markets for the Canadian company and the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information pushed RIM to filter explicit content. The company eventually agreed and used DNS Nawala, the popular porn-blocking software.

DNS Nawala has an interesting history. One day in 2007, M. Yamin was shocked when his young daughter, pointing to their home computer screen, asked: “What is this, daddy?” On the search result page, X-rated images were popping up among cartoon characters. To prevent such a thing from happening again, in 2009 he and his friends started DNS Nawala, more popularly called just Nawala.

The goal of Nawala is to create “Internet bersih dan a man”: a clean and safe internet. For example, when a BlackBerry user tries to access a site, the connection from his device is sent to the central server in Canada. The central server in turn routes back to the Nawala server in Jakarta where Nawala checks whether the site is on its blacklist. If the site is blacklisted the connection will be sent to another domain, namely Otherwise the connection will safely continue to the site.

Nawala is free to use. To censor, the administrator of a computer needs only to change the default DNS setting to Nawala’s DNS. As support grew, Yamin and his friends formalised Nawala and founded the Nawala Foundation. As of July, 2013, Nawala Foundation had blocked over 647,000 porn sites. Nawala targets not only porn sites but also fraud, phishing, proxy and malware sites and recently it has also targeted sites that distribute messages of hate and intolerance. As Indonesia prohibits any form of gambling, Nawala now also targets gambling sites. Yamin said that many internet cafes in Indonesia employ Nawala to block porn sites and the program is in use in at least in 86 countries.

The Ministry of Information and Communication recently also developed a similar program called Trust+ Positif but such initiatives are apparently not enough. Moreover, they are unable to control search results. A search for the same keyword(s) on could have different results to for example, the word “cerdas” (smart, clever, intelligent) – a sought-after word by parents and students – in the ID site results in healthy sites. But on the .com version, the top most result is, with a description under the link to the page reading: “Sexo gratis en Spanol”.

There have been some minority opinions that porn censorship doesn’t fit well with freedom of expression but apparently the majority in Indonesia, a country dominated by Muslims, disagrees with those opinions.

More secular criticism of Nawala refers not to the initiative’s intention but more on technical issues and there are concerns that Nawala sometimes places healthy sites in its blacklist.

“Nawala? Well, one or two years ago, it was the most-hated thing for porn seekers going to the internet cafés,” Andi the internet café operator said. “But today most internet cafés turn the blocking off. Now internet cafés aren’t as popular as two or three years ago. If you aren’t able to offer a product sought by people, you won’t bring any cash in. And what on earth is Trust+ Positif? I never heard of it.”


An Ismanto has been a freelance writer and a translator for six years, covering diverse topics from literature and travel to technology and the environment. His writing, essays and translations appear in several national newspapers in Indonesia.


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An Ismanto

An Ismanto has been a freelance writer and a translator for six years, covering diverse topics from literature and travel to technology and the environment. His writing, essays and translations appear in several national newspapers in Indonesia

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