By: Our Correspondent

The Thai junta, which already administers one of the world’s toughest measures against supposed misuse of computers, appears on the verge going to frantic lengths to stiffen the law even more with, among other things, an amendment that could give the government the ability to force internet users to decrypt their transmissions.

The military has been steadily tightening the screws on freedom of expression since 2006, when a coup brought down the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Interrupted only by Thaksin surrogate governments that were elected democratically, the military has continued to shut off avenues of free speech. The most draconian of the laws is the lèse majesté provision against insulting members of the royal family, which has extended all the way to threats of arrest for making fun of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog.

In addition to the lèse majesté law, in 2007 following the coup, the junta pushed through the Computer Crimes Act, which prescribed three to 15 years in prison for uploading or publishing anything that is “likely to damage computer data or a computer system related to the country’s security, public security and economic security or public services.” Another section punishes any computer-related act that causes “damage the country’s security or causes a public panic” if it is “related with an offense against the Kingdom’s security under the Criminal Code,’’ with the potential for five years in prison. Authorities have used the act and the lèse majesté act to go after almost anyone who makes any kind of statement the military deems harmful. 

As questions over the royal succession have continued, with very little confidence in Prince Vajiralongkorn to succeed him because of the prince’s erratic behavior, the government has sought to stamp out any reference to such questions.

The current round of amendments has alarmed rights organizations including Amnesty International, Thai Netizens, and Privacy International, which submitted an open letter to the National Legislative Assembly saying that “In its current form, the Computer Crimes Act and its proposed amendments fail to ensure that the legislation upholds Thailand’s international obligations to safeguard the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The Draft Amendments, in their current form, represent a missed opportunity to reform this law, and would allow censorship and surveillance in the name of national security that fails to meet the requirements set out in international law, including strict tests of necessity and proportionality. As you may be aware, our organizations have expressed extensive concerns that the Computer Crimes Act (2007) in its current form is being used to penalize individuals and web-service providers for their legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and excessively impede enjoyment of this and the right to privacy.”

That is unlikely to carry much weight with the junta, which came to power on May 22, 2014, and has employed sometimes farcical attempts to block dissent. Since 2007, at least 150,000 websites have been blocked in Thailand as authorities have attempted to squash dissent, although about half of them contained pornographic material. However, a wide variety of anti-blocking software is available on Google, and there have been holes in the country’s ability to block URLs or web addresses. Asia Sentinel has been blocked frequently, although many continue to read it in Thailand.

Apparently frustrated with the leaks, the junta has now prepared legislation to impose additional penalties over a broad range of supposed offenses related to national security, public security, national economic stability, or public infrastructure, although terms like “economic stability” and “public infrastructure” are not defined, allowing wider interpretation.  Over all, the amendments broadly expand government powers, leading to more surveillance.  Another section expands the internet blocking/takedown provision to allow restriction of information that isn’t illegal under any law, but is deemed to breach public order or morality and goes beyond Computer Crimes Act offenses. 

“Even though General Prayuth [Chan-ocha, the junta leader] claims he’s a Luddite when it comes to social media and the internet, he’s managed to figure out that the National Council for Peace and Order and its policies have been getting hammered by netizens all over the kingdom and he doesn’t like it,” said a Bangkok-based internet freedom advocate. “So of course he’s decided to make the already draconian Computer Crimes Act even more severe, with increasingly vague definitions permitting authorities to block, interfere with, or arrest people for online content.  If these incredibly bad, rights-abusing amendments are passed by the junta’ rubber stamp parliament, look for scores of prosecutions starting for people deemed responsible for all sorts of internet content that he and his mind-control police don’t like.  The only way to hold back these bad policies will be if some of the big boys of the internet, like Google, Facebook, and others get involved now in trying to defend online expression by warning the NCPO away from taking this forward.  Foreign investors should also be telling Prayuth that they didn’t sign up for having their information sources limited and their right to free expression truncated just because Prayuth doesn’t like what people are saying about him or his government.” 

A  “Computer Data Screening Committee” comprised of five members, two of whom will come from the private sector is to be created to restrict information that is not illegal, but breaches order or morality although the committee must agree unanimously to file a complaint/apply for a court order to block or restrict access to data. Service providers can be served with orders to take down or block offending data, with the Communications Minister determining further guidelines for how service providers are to respond. 

A provision also states that “they shall be made compatible with each other and in response to changing technology”, which TNN is suggesting may be a reference to blocking encrypted web connections. Providers are ordered to retain user data for at least 90 days and extends the maximum retention period to two years.  Service providers can appeal orders, but orders do not require court approval or oversight, extending the time the government can snoop on past transmissions.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Information and Communication Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana denied claims that the draft amendment violates internet users’ privacy, outlining a long list of steps the government must take for removing illegal content that protect users.