Thailand’s new (and controversial) cyber laws - Part 1: Introduction

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 10, 2015 The Thai military government has greenlit a large batch of draft laws that aim to pave the way for the digitization of governance and state business. However, they also come with a slew of strengthened cyber surveillance and censorship upgrades for the authorities. 

The year was 2007. Social media was yet to be discovered by most people in Thailand as many were conversing on blogs or the still-popular web forums. The first ever iPhone was only available as an expensive import, 3G was still several years away and even broadband internet was just getting starting to become widely available.

That’s when the then-military government signed the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA) into law. Initially drawn up to provide a legal groundwork to combat online scams and hacking, the main motivation behind the rather hasty drafting of the CCA was a YouTube video mocking Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the online video platform’s refusal to delete it despite requests from the Thai government - which subsequently led to a temporary block of the whole site for Thai users.

In the following years, the CCA became known for its crude implementation of online censorship and criminalizing political criticism, especially when it deals with lèse majesté. When somebody is being convicted of having allegedly committed a crime violating both the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crimes Act (especially Art. 12.2) - in practice, posting something online that is perceived insulting to the monarchy - the accused could face up to 15 years in prison for each violation of each law.

There were two notable cases that highlight the (ab)use of both laws: Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of the Thai alternative news website Prachatai, was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence in 2012 for simply not deleting web comments quickly enough that were deemed lèse majesté, while Amphon Tangnoppakul was less fortunate. The man commonly known as ‘Ahkong’ or ‘Uncle SMS’ was imprisoned for 20 years for allegedly sending four SMSs insulting the monarchy (despite inconclusive evidence). After four years in jail, he died in May 2012 at age 61, arguably becoming a martyr to critics of the lèse majesté law.

All attempts at amending the CCA in whatever direction so far have gone nowhere, either because it got lost in the drafting process or no government stayed long enough in office to push it through.

Now, with the military in charge, the largest legislative change to the cyber laws seems imminent and it doesn't look good.

Last week, the junta’s cabinet approved in principle eight proposed bills which were claimed to prepare Thailand for the “digital economy”. The groups said they were in fact designed to restructure and tighten control of telecommunications and the internet in Thailand.

The junta-appointed parliament earlier passed a law to change the title of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES). The MDES will be the main agency overseeing the “digital economy”.

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

While the main intention of the new batch of laws is officially to push for bigger integration of the internet in governance and state business with the ”digital economy” at the very top of the priority list to make the country more competitive, it also comes with a slew of sections that essentially results in cyber surveillance and monitoring.

The eight proposed bills (with links to some translated versions provided by the Thai Netizen Network) are:

  1. National Digital Committee for Economy and Society Bill
  2. Ministry of Digital for Economy and Society Bill
  3. Electronic Transaction Bill (amendment)[PDF] [Open Document]
  4. Computer-related Crime Bill(amendment) [PDF] [Open Document]
  5. Cybersecurity Bill [PDF] [OpenDocument]
  6. Personal Data Protection Bill [PDF] [Open Document]
  7. Digital Economy Promotion Bill
  8. Digital Development for Economy and Society Fund Bill
  9. Broadcasting and Telecommunication Regulator Bill (amendment)
  10. Electronic Transaction Development Agency Bill (amendment)

"Thailand’s Digital Economy-Cyber Security Bills [English translation]", Thai Netizen Network, January 15, 2015

The amendments to the Computer Crime Act and the new Cyber-Security Bill are at the center of the controversy. This is not just simply a case of legislation not being able to keep up with technological advancement, but rather the legal enabling of long-desired, ill-intended motives to be more in control of the flow of information online.

In the coming weeks this mini-series will look at the some of the controversial passages of the cyber law drafts and examine the severe implications of the laws for every internet user in Thailand.