Thai junta faces uphill battle to control social media

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 4, 2014 [Author's note: Due to the military coup of May 22, 2014 and subsequent censorship measures we have placed certain restrictions on what we publish. Please also read Bangkok Pundit's post on that subject. We hope to return to full and free reporting and commentary in the near future.]

And suddenly the progress bar wouldn't stop loading. Thai online users were stumped last Wednesday afternoon when they couldn't access Facebook, prompting a swift outcry on other social networks such as Twitter. While the lockout only lasted less than an hour, it was a chilling reminder of the censorship situation in a post-coup Thailand that also extends online.

After the Thai military's declaration of martial law that resulted in the coup d'état of May 22, the junta set up measures that restrict media outlets from criticizing the coup and the newly-established National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Numerous domestic and satellite TV channels temporarily stopped broadcasting and international news channels were blocked until Tuesday of last week.

With traditional news media either being censored or exercising self-censorship, many Thais have turned to social media for updates and commentary on the latest developments - and also for organizing anti-coup protests that have popped up on a regular basis. That explains why the junta is strictly monitoring online traffic and has strongly advised online users against sharing what it considers "wrongful" information that may "incite unrest".

Immediately after the coup, the NCPO summoned representatives of all Thai internet service providers (ISPs) and told them to block all online content that could be seen critical to the coup. As of writing, hundreds of websites have been  rendered inaccessible from Thailand without specific tools to circumvent online restrictions. Also, Facebook profiles of Thai pro-democracy and anti-coup activists have disappeared without notice - leaving us to speculate that they were either deactivated by their owners as a precaution or taken down for other reasons.

The Facebook outage was just the most visible episode of the Thai officials flexing their muscles - even though it wasn't entirely clear which authority was responsible for that:

A senior ICT ministry official confirmed the site had been blocked to thwart the spread of online criticism of the military in the wake of a May 22 coup.

"We have blocked Facebook temporarily and tomorrow we will call a meeting with other social media, like Twitter and Instagram, to ask for cooperation from them," Surachai Srisaracam, permanent secretary of the Information and Communications Technology Ministry, told Reuters. (...)

"We have no policy to block Facebook and we have assigned the ICT ministry to set up a supervisory committee to follow social media and investigate and solve problems," said Sirichan Ngathong, spokeswoman for the military council.

"There's been some technical problems with the internet gateway," she said, adding that the authorities were working with internet service providers to fix the problem urgently.

"Thai ministry sparks alarm with brief block of Facebook", May 28, 2014

The aforementioned meeting with representatives from the companies behind social networks and instant messaging apps never materialized. The calls by the Thai Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) were left unanswered, prompting MICT officials to seek a meeting with Facebook, Google and others in Singapore.

However, earlier this week...

Thailand's junta now says the trip is off. "At this point, things look fine, so there is no need to make any trip now," Maj. Gen. Pisit Paoin, adviser to the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology's permanent secretary, told The Wall Street Journal late Sunday.

Asked on Monday to elaborate on the junta's approach to social-media censorship, Maj. Gen. Pisit reiterated that the trip is off but said he was unable to discuss how leaders intend to work with large Internet companies.

"Thai Junta Says Facebook, Google Meetings Called Off", Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2014

Some of those alternative ideas have been revealed later that day in local media:

The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) is proposing a plan to build a state-owned Facebook-like social networking site called Thailand Social Network. (...)

The plan includes building a state-owned nation internet gateway (...)

In the plan, initiated by the military junta, private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will have to connect to the state-owned ISP TOT, so that it will be easier for the authorities to block websites and prevent terrorism, he said, adding that MICT will oversee the national gateway.

"Thai authorities to build state-owned social network site", Prachatai English, June 2, 2014

Aside from the very ambitious task of creating a new national social network to compete with the massive 26 million-strong user base Facebook has in Thailand - a similar venture by the Vietnamese government simply couldn't keep up - the MICT has been longing for bigger control of the online traffic flow for some time, as the statements by MICT officials at a conference shortly before the coup show.

Freedom of expression online in Thailand has long been an issue for authorities and is being challenged even more since the coup. On the other hand the military junta is facing an uphill battle dealing not only with new technology that didn't exist during previous coups, but also with the way that people are communicating online.