Prayut lashes out: Who’s afraid of the big, bad internet?

The Thai Government’s amendments to the Computer Crime Act represent their tightest restrictions so far on online freedom of expression. This is likely to be an indication of things to come as the junta prepares for a 2017 election, but hope may come from an unlikely source.

By Oliver Ward

General Prayut’s military junta continues its unabated assault on Thai civil liberties with the passing of a string of amendments aimed at silencing political opposition across the country. The changes to the Computer Crime Act, which was originally established in 2007 under Surayud Chulanont’s government, have been condemned by human rights groups for giving the state unlimited authority.

The new amendments make it possible for the authorities to imprison internet users who express their opinions online, and remove any and all pages deemed, according to Prayut Chan-o-cha himself, “poisonous to society.” A petition of over 360,000 signatures was submitted to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)in an attempt to block the amendments and preserve the freedom of the country’s 29 million internet users across the country, but they were passed unanimously nonetheless.

Government offices will have even more power to remove content they do not like

To dig deeper on the extent of the censorship system, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has the last say on what content is acceptable. And if a website is deemed inappropriate then civil servants send a request to internet service providers asking them to block that material. If a provider doesn’t comply with the request, then the ministry can restrict their bandwidth and potentially revoke their license.

These types of restrictions are not new. In the year before Prayut seized power, the ministry requested the blocking of 2,500 sites, though this number rose to more than 13,000 as the military government took hold. The Thai Police themselves have also been involved in prohibiting access to more than 32,500 websites.

One of the most damaging new amendments is contained in section 15 of the bill. It allows for penalties to be imposed on anyone that “cooperate” in the distribution of “false computer data.” The implications of this will likely be that local internet providers will become self-censoring to avoid a bureaucratic legal nightmare over potentially ambiguous content. The amendment creates such an environment of fear that the Ministry of Communication and Technology will not even need to submit requests for content to be removed, the looming threat of political force is sufficient to create an industry that will do it for them.

The junta is cracking down on dissent in preparation for an election

The timing of these changes is highly relevant. Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government are currently trying to ensure the smooth transition of royal power and shore up support ahead of a potential 2017 general election. In this cautious environment, thousands of websites have already been blocked or removed via court orders. But now, under article 20 of the revised Computer Crime Act, the government has the unchecked power to bypass the courts and remove anything which could threaten national security or “people’s good morals”.

Since the death of King Bhumibol, the vote on the Referendum Act and the ascension of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the junta has created an atmosphere of fear and embarked on a campaign of imprisoning dissenting journalists and political opponents who dare to speak out. The BBC local service has been investigated for an article about the new king, and a pro-democracy activist was charged under the lese majesté laws for sharing the same article on social media. As a result, pro-democracy activists are more concerned that the government will arbitrarily conduct intensive internet surveillance on those it deems a threat.

And they have good reason to be. Under section 14 of the revised Computer Crime Act, dissenters can face five years imprisonment and a fine of THB100,000 ($2,700 USD) for entering data into a computer system which could “cause damage to the public, create panic, cause harm to public infrastructure or damage national security.” In an already tense climate, these loose but vicious terms effectively remove the only platform left for open discussion of political alternatives.

More legislation is due to be passed which would be even more restrictive

But these restrictive amendments could be just the tip of the iceberg. In March the military government will look to pass the Cyber Security Act and the Data Protection Act – which have already received approval in principle – and just need to be ushered through parliament. The first of these is likely to be the piéce de résistance of the official clampdown on political opposition and will allow the indiscriminate wiretapping of phones and computers without prior court approval.

The bill, if passed, will also establish a National Cyber Security Committee which will have the power to remove internet content as it wishes. The secretary of the committee will simultaneously serve as secretary for the Personal Data Protection Committee, putting one person in charge of upholding people’s right to anonymity while simultaneously extensively monitoring the population’s online activity. Kanathip Throngraweewong, an expert in data privacy at Saint John´s University in Bangkok, said, “these laws are aimed at controlling online media, accessing personal data, and when the cybersecurity bill is passed, mass surveillance is a real threat”.

Facebook may offer some hope for online safe spaces

An unlikely hope for Thai freedom of expression online could come from one of the internet’s biggest corporations. Back in 2014, the junta asked Facebook to block anti-government content. When Facebook refused, Prayut passed legislation under the Referendum Act which allows for the imprisonment of users who criticise the constitution. It has already been used a number of times.

Fast-forward to today and Facebook is currently advertising for a Policy Director for Bangkok and this could be hugely significant for freedom of expression on Thai social media. The job of the policy director would be to ensure Facebook users are protected from government prosecution and find an agreement that balances the network’s goal of a public space for sharing ideas, with the junta’s desire for strict content control. Facebook has already been a driver for social and political change across the world and if they can fashion a compromise that allows them to operate as usual then this could be one of the last remaining spaces for discussion and community-building.

For this reason, the junta is wary. A frightened animal is capable of lashing out, and the proposed Cyber Security Act may be just that, a heavy-handed response by a nervous government clinging to power in the absence of democracy. As such, the future looks ominous for Thai online freedom, and things are likely to become a lot worse before they get better.