Thailand’s internet gets caged

In this picture taken on 1 March, 2019, Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (C) greets supporters during a campaign rally in Narathiwat, ahead of the 24 March general election. (Madaree Tohlala / AFP Photo)

A cyber-security bill introduced just weeks ahead of Thailand’s first democratic election since a 2014 military coup has stoked concerns that it could be used as a weapon to stifle political dissent.

Critics say the broad and vague language in the Cyber Security Bill – passed by the country’s unelected lawmakers on 28 February – may give the current military government powers to seize data and electronic equipment without proper legal oversight. The law will come into effect once it is published in the Royal Gazette, the timing of which is unclear.

“This law’s aim is simple: to put the internet in a cage,” said Katherine Gerson, a Thailand researcher at Amnesty International. “Authorities have already penalised scores of journalists, politicians, activists, academics and students under vaguely worded legislation – this new law would entrench the stifling political climate cultivated by the military government.”

The new law risks further eroding free speech in a nation that’s already imprisoned hundreds of people over the past decade for political statements and insults to the royal family. Technology companies including Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. have also warned via an industry lobby group that it would empower authorities to spy on most internet traffic.

Thailand isn’t alone in tightening oversight of the internet and social media. Last year, the government of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a fake news law that was used to probe his chief opponent Mahathir Mohamad. After Mahathir was elected in May he attempted to repeal the bill, but was thwarted by the opposition-led Senate. India, which holds national elections next month, is also attempting to stem the spread of misinformation on Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp.

“We give a high importance to cyber security and cyber threats, these measures are only to be used when there’s an actual threat to national stability,” Weerachon Sukhonthapatipak, a government spokesman said in a phone interview. “If you’re just a regular business operating here with transparency and good conduct, this law wouldn’t affect you.”

Heavy users

Social media is expected to play a heavy role ahead of Thailand’s 24 March national ballot, injecting a new dynamic into a country with a volatile history of elections, unrest and military coups. More than three-quarters of Thailand’s 69 million people are internet users and the Southeast Asian country ranks third globally for the most time per day spent surfing the web, according to We Are Social and Hootsuite data. Thailand is the seventh largest market for Facebook users worldwide, with 84 percent of the total population on the platform.

In the event of a cyber threat to national security, the new bill allows a watchdog committee headed by the prime minister to seize computers, servers and data without a court order, according to the latest version of the law posted on the Senate’s website.

The government’s statement has not reassured technology company lobbyists, who have spoken out against the new law. The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry organisation that represents companies such as Alphabet Inc., Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook and Twitter Inc., said in statement on the day the law was passed the bill would give the military regime “sweeping powers to monitor traffic online” under a “loosely-defined national security agenda.”

It will also enhance the military government’s powers under the existing Computer Crimes Act. In the five years since it came to power the junta has filed over 60 charges, on issues ranging from the publication of a whistle-blowing report on human rights in Thailand to the posting of content on Facebook.

Many cases go undocumented however and the number is thought to be much higher, said Yingcheep Atchanong, a program manager at iLaw, a Bangkok-based organization that works on issues relating to freedom of expression and civil and political rights.

‘Differing opinions’

“If the law is used strictly for cyber-attacks then it’s acceptable,” said Yingcheep. “However, the government typically uses the excuse of national stability in a political manner, as well as to attack those with differing opinions.”

That’s the concern for military critics such as Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a tycoon-turned-prime ministerial candidate for the anti-junta Future Forward Party.

Thananthorn is currently facing charges of spreading false information under the Computer Crime Act, brought by a member of the military government. His party last week was hit with another charge of spreading fake news online, punishable under the same law, a charge they plan to contest.

“The Computer Crimes Act has been used as a political tool to prosecute people in our country when they speak out,” Thanathorn said. “I fear the same with this cyber security law. It’s not to protect us, but to silence us.” - Bloomberg