Thailand’s new cyber laws – Part 5: Admin error

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 26, 2015

In the last part of our Siam Voices series examining the new cyber laws, we chronicle the criticism against and the defense for the controversial bills – and what’s behind the military junta’s motivation to push these into law.

In the past two weeks we have analyzed the cyber law bills for its potential impact on policies, censorship and also business. More often than not we found that the flaws outweigh the benefits and, if signed into law without large-scale amendments will have very serious implications of the civil liberties, free speech, personal privacy and even e-commerce of every Thai internet user – except for those in charge of the law.

So it is no wonder why there has been a significant amount of criticism against the cyber bills. Here’s just a small selection:

“Proposed cyber-security legislation in Thailand represents a clear and present danger to media freedoms,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “If Prime Minister Prayuth is sincere about returning the country to democracy, he should see that Parliament scraps this bill, which is reminiscent of a police state, and instead enact laws that uphold online freedoms.”

Cyber security bill threatens media freedom in Thailand”,  Committee to Protect Journalists, January 20, 2015

“The consumers will feel that they are being watched when they go online,” said Arthit Suriyawongkul, an expert on cyber and computer law from the Thai Netizen Network. (…)

“They’ll feel unsure about sharing their private information fearing that officials could abuse their privacy,” Mr Arthit said. “If consumers are not confident then online businesses will suffer.”

Fears over Thailand’s online freedom, as junta drives towards digital economy”, Channel NewsAsia, January 29, 2015

Six civil organizations [Thai Netizen NetworkFTA WatchFoundation for Community Education Media (FCEM)Green World FoundationPeople’s Media Development Institute, and Thailand Association for the Blind (TAB)] denounced the eight Digital Economy bills recently approved by the junta, saying they are national security bills in disguise and that the bill will pave the way for a state monopoly of the telecommunication business.

Thai junta’s Digital Economy bills are national security bills in disguise: rights groups”, Prachatai English, January 14, 2015

Also, almost 22,000 people have signed an online-petition against the bills, calling for them to be stopped.

At the moment the right cyber bills are in the military junta’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) – dominated by active and former military officers – and are awaiting deliberation. It is not expected that the rubber-stamping body will be making any fundamental changes to the drafts.

Nevertheless, the military government’s response to the criticism is – like with any other criticism out there – aggravated and irritated. Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded in his usual style:

“We will develop software for goods and services. If there is private [online] content, no one would mess with it. But if [some people] commit crimes [such as lèse majesté], we have to investigate the matter. The accusation that the government is not taking care of Article 112 [of the Criminal Code, known as the lèse majesté law] is because those lèse majesté websites operate from overseas.

Junta leader admits controversial digital economy bills target lèse majesté”, Prachatai English, January 22, 2015

And when pressed by another reporter…

“Today, have I ever restricted anyone’s rights? Have I ever done that?” asked Gen. Prayuth, who imposed martial law after leading a military coup on 22 May 2014, and has banned any political protests or public criticism of his regime.

The reporter pressed Gen. Prayuth to justify the sweeping nature of the bill, prompting Gen. Prayuth to lose his temper and shout, “I don’t have to answer why! I will pass it. You have a problem with that? Otherwise, why the hell am I the Prime Minister? Why am I the Prime Minister?”

Gen. Prayuth then walked away from the reporters and said angrily, “I’m in a very bad mood.”

Thai Junta Leader Deflects Concern Over Mass Surveillance Bill”, Khaosod English, January 21, 2015

This incident at a small activist symposium shows how much the military government is trying to claim its narrative over the bills:

Also present at the Bangkok symposium was an Army Lieutenant who arrived uninvited with three other soldiers in an armoured Humvee and “asked” to be allowed to defend the draft bills. (…)

Army Lieutenant Kittiphob Tiensiriwong (…) urged the 35-strong crowd to accept the bills, saying that the NLA had good intentions but acknowledging that the bills must have more positive than negative aspects.

When asked to explain, Kittiphob, who did not remove his footwear like the other participants, said there were times when speedy access to the Internet was needed.

He said the bills aimed “to control those who think unlike others – those who have their own mind and are not considering the thinking of the collective.”

Calls to hold cyber bills until democracy is restored”, The Nation, February 2, 2015

While this should come as no surprise to anyone, that right there is actual main motivation of the military junta for the cyber law bills and for the way it was written! Ever since the military coup in last May, one of the key elements of its tight grip is the massive monitoring of the media, including online, to curtail any signs of criticism and dissent.

Even without the cyber laws and thanks to the still ongoing martial law, the military junta has already taken steps for wide-spread online surveillance as we have previously reported, as well as ordering Thai internet service providers to preemptively block websites. Since then, there have been further developments that are in line with the authorities’ efforts to scrutinize online traffic: the development of software to intercept secured SSL-connections, mandatory sim-card registrations (in a country that predominantly uses their phones with pre-paid subscriptions) as well as for free wifi and the reported creation of a “cyber warfare” unit by the Thai military.

The desire by Thai authorities to control the flow of information online is not new and was evident in past governments (see hereherehere and here), but under the authoritarian rule of the military junta, it can operate with no checks and balances – and thus also legalize its unprecedented powers to monitor, spy, filter, censor and collect anything online.

The main purpose of an army is to protect the country from external threats, but history has shown that the Thai army has mainly acted against the Thai people. Now with the new online surveillance measures and the cyber law bills, the Thai military and the junta is expanding its fields of operations (or rather battlespace) to the cyberspace – and thus not against an external force, but again against every Thai internet user.

THAILAND’S NEW CYBER LAWS: Part 1: Introduction – Part 2: Changes to Computer Crime Act – Part 3: Far-reaching and all-encompassing cyber security – Part 4: Bad for business, too! – Part 5: Admin error