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THE CYBER VIGILANTES
Censorship in Thailand Part 3: The Internet

Censorship in one form or another has been around as long as there have been civilizations. To some, it’s a benevolent service aimed at protecting the innocent; to others it’s nothing less than totalitarian mind control restricting freedom of expression. Certain recent events in Thailand have roused Naked Farang to take a closer look at censorship here in the land of smiles in a three-part series that will cover the media, arts and entertainment, and the Internet.

The Internet, that bastion of free speech that places centuries of accumulated knowledge at our fingertips and brings the secrets of the universe into our homes, is under threat in Thailand. At any given moment, millions of people across the globe are surfing the information superhighway to countless different places in search of countless different treasures, but not all of these streets are paved with gold. Enter Thailand’s cyber vigilantes…

According to Sub. Lt. Ranongrak Suwanchawee, Thailand’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Minister, there are currently some 2,300 websites allegedly insulting the Thai monarchy and, consequently, breaking the nation’s antiquated lese majeste laws. While no-one can deny that the anonymity of the Internet harbours certain dangers that need to be policed, is this really one of them?

H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the undisputed father of the Thai people and is revered by almost the entire nation and many foreigners, myself included, for the work he has done in supporting his people over the last 60 plus years, but for all the King’s good work, does he really need to be so cosseted?

An amazing 80 million baht is being spent on monitoring the web for such heinous activity – money that would surely be better spent updating the inferior operating systems that hold Thailand back as the rest of the world thrives in the Information Age.

Ranongrak says that he is seeking court orders to ban the offending web sites but that it can take too long so he sometimes goes ahead and blocks sites without waiting for judicial approval. Excuse my naiveté, but I wasn’t aware that being a government minister elevated someone above the law. And what if a banned website is subsequently exonerated by the courts? Do they have recourse to sue the Ministry for slander and lost revenue?

A direct answer to these questions is unlikely. Thailand, for all its innocent charm, is a nanny state where true democracy is never more than an illusion in the immature minds of the masses. Fathers, teachers, bosses and government ministers specialise in patronising their wards like ignorant children who couldn’t possibly know what was best for themselves. There is no mechanism in Thai society to allow the questioning of authority so whether overseeing a family or the nation, it’s a case of “because I said so”.

At least Ranongrak seems to know what the Internet is. A predecessor, Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, was famous for banning sites he had never even “glanced at” – a supernatural cyber vigilante! In fact, he also said that the Internet was not exciting and that he only ever visited two sites: an engineering site and a golf site. He added that he had an e-mail account but that he rarely checked it.

“I once visited pantip.com and was confused by its many rooms. I quit and never went back,” he observed and promptly banned it. Concerning other sites he had axed, he was quoted in The Nation as saying that he didn’t know the purpose of the sites or what users did at them.

Thailand’s current cyber crime laws, drafted in 2001 and finally introduced in 2007, allow the government to deal with any online activity that is deemed “disturbing to the peaceful social order and morality of the people and is considered detrimental to national security”. It’s sufficiently vague and subjective to allow the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Special Investigations or the Ministry of the Interior through the Royal Thai Police Force to interpret the law as they see fit and apply it vigilante style.

The Bangkok Post reported that the first apprehended cyber criminal was a man accused of criticising the monarchy. After two weeks in custody, he was released for lack of evidence, although I’m not sure how this could be possible. Surely, if he made and posted the comments, the evidence would be right there in black and white on his website.

Police also have the right to seize computer equipment from people “suspected” of producing or transmitting insulting or pornographic content. Worryingly, no warrant is required.

In April 2008, Siriporn Suwwannapitaka, the administrator of the 212 Café Free Web Discussion Board told the Bangkok Post how he received a call from the police about pornographic pictures on his website, although they were unable to tell Siriporn which url contained the offensive pictures. Nevertheless, he tracked down the offensive pictures and asked the police what they wanted him to do. The officer making the call didn’t know, but the administrator went ahead and banned the url himself.

One month later, police raided Siriporn’s home office, confiscating his servers and computer devices and demanding that he submit a full list of his clients. There were 28,000!!! Siriporn later complained that the police didn’t make any effort to find or arrest the person who posted the nude pictures. Instead, he spent a night in the cells and was forced to pay 100,000 baht bail bond.

The ICT is currently trying to speed up further amendments to the law that will give it carte blanche powers to arbitrarily ban any website it doesn’t like. While no-one will deny that child pornographers, information hackers, intellectual property pirates, identity thieves, false advertisers, spam mailers and confidence tricksters all merit restriction and prosecution, Thailand’s cyber vigilantes may yet prove to be Thailand’s biggest threat to true democracy and free speech.

Paul Snowdon – February 23, 2009

Related Article: The Eye of the Paper Tiger - Censorship Part 1 (the media)
Related Article: Hide and Seek with Nanny - Censorship Part 2 (arts & entertainment)

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