Thai junta takes further steps towards online mass surveillance, censorship

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 12, 2015

A series of new orders and proposals suggests that Thailand’s military government has taken further steps to monitor and censor online content in continued efforts to curtail criticism of itself and the country’s monarchy.

Ever since the coup of May 22, 2014, the military junta has tightened its grip on the media by putting it under close watch and threatening those that are not criticizing the military rulers ”in good faith”. The official attitude of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta is formally called, towards the media is encapsulated by a junta media watchdog representative who stated that it doesn’t limit media freedom, but that the media ”must stay within limits”.

Despite this, the junta was apparently still not happy with its control over the public narrative. This is evident from the junta leader, former army chief and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, after a series of gaffes, verbosities and apparently tired facing the same questions (like when elections will be held, eventually?) from the press, accusing some media of “inciting conflict” and ”personally attacking him” and threatening to shut those offending outlets down under the still existing martial law. That sentiment has been echoed later by his hawkish deputy prime minister and former army chief General Prawit Wongsuwan.

One major headache for the military junta’s urge to control the media is the Internet, and especially social media. We have previously reported on the heightened measures, which reportedly includes the implementation of a mass online surveillance capabilities.

The main thrust of this crackdown on the media is not only the claim over the narrative in post-coup Thailand, but also the military’s junta self-proclaimed duty to hunt everyone defaming the monarchy (something this and previous governments see as a threat to national security), thus banning content it perceives to be lèse majesté, an offense that can carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail. Since the coup, all cases that fall under this are handled by a military court and so far more than 20 people have been charged.

In recent weeks, two major developments in Thailand during the last days of 2014 suggest the further curtailing of online traffic.

First, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) issued this:

Thakorn Tantasith, a member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC), said today that all Internet Service Providers (ISP) based in the Kingdom have been instructed to monitor the websites under their watch and close down any sites that contain libelous remarks toward the monarchy. (…)

“They can shut down any page with content that threatens the national security or violates Section 112 immediately. They don’t need to seek any approval from the NBTC or any agency,” Thakorn said, “If they have doubt about whether some websites are guilty of the crime, they can contact a five-person special working group of the NBTC.” If the committee deem the website to be in violation of lese majeste laws, it will shut down the site in 30 seconds, Thakorn explained.

He added that the new measure is a response to the spike in lese majeste violations in the past several months. “We have to tighten the screw to prevent any further offences, or at least reduce them,” Thakorn said.

Thai Govt Aims To Shut Down Anti-Monarchy Sites ‘In 30 Seconds’“, Khaosod English, December 29, 2014

Apart from the obvious reasoning on this measure by the authorities, it also creates yet another problematic precedent as  ISPs are being asked to use their own judgement to filter content and block URLs. In the past, such pre-emptive strikes have caused certain websites to be inaccessible on one provider, while they would still work on another one. And since the lines as to what constitutes lèse majesté are pretty blurry themselves, placing this responsibility with somebody else only leads to even more arbitrary application of this law.

In related news from late December, Thai authorities reportedly sought talks with representatives of the social network platform Facebook over ways to ”to identify Facebook users who post messages” deemed lèse majesté – similar to their attempts to reach out to the company behind the mobile chat application LINE after the junta claimed it could monitor personal chats on the app. Facebook reportedly declined to join the meeting, saying that no one was available.

Then this happened:

According to Thai Netizen Network, the cabinet on Tuesday gave the green light to the proposed Cyber Security bill to establish a National Committee for Cyber Security, under the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES), whose former title was the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). The Cyber Security Bill was one of eight proposed bills on telecommunications which are aimed at restructuring and tightening control of telecommunications in Thailand.

In the draft, the National Committee for Cyber Security will be operated under the supervision of the Minister of Digital Economy and Society to oversee threats to national cyber security, which is defined as cyber threats related to national security, military security, stability, economic security, and interference on internet, satellite, and telecommunications networks. (…)

Most importantly, the committee is authorized to access all communication traffic via all communication devices, such as post, telephone, mobile phone, internet, and other electronic devices. The committee will also have the authority to order all public and private organizations to cooperate against any perceived threats to national cyber security. (…)

In addition to this, the junta cabinet has also previously approved a proposal from the Royal Thai Police to amend the 1934 Criminal Procedure Code to allow the police to intercept communication devices of criminal suspects.

Thai junta gives green light to bill on mass surveillance“, Prachatai English, January 8, 2015

It clearly shows that Thailand’s military junta will seek more and more avenues to monitor, block, filter and censor online content on a larger scale – and ultimately take control of its own narrative.

UPDATE: Prachatai English has more details on the proposed changes to the 1934 Criminal Procedure Code to intercept communications of suspects, while Bangkok Post reports on the criticism of the proposed “cyber law” drafts.