Plans by the Thai military government to restrict the country’s internet traffic through a single gateway has raised concerns not only in the IT community, but among a public who fear authorities will easily be able to control what they can see and what they can not.
It seems that outages of major online platforms have had some unfortunate timing lately. Shortly after the Thai military launched last year's coup - the country’s 12th - Facebook was suddenly not accessible for anyone in Thailand. While the period offline was no longer than a hour, the outcry by its over 30 million users nationwide was loud, suspecting an online shutdown by the new rulers in order to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Fast forward this past Thursday night: another Facebook outage, and similar outcry - only this time those were heard around the world as the site itself was down for a couple of minutes for everybody. But again some Thai users might have been startled by this incident, as it happened shortly after news emerged that the Thai military government wants to siphon all incoming internet traffic through a single gateway - effectively emulating China's ”Great Firewall” in order to filter unwanted content.
The idea was conceived by the military government right after it took over power last year (among other ideas like a national social network), but it wasn’t until August this year that things were set in motion:
On 4 Aug. the military government approved the plan, and on 27 Aug. issued an order to the ministry tasked with regulating the internet to make it happen, according to cabinet meeting records.
“The Ministry of Information Communication Technology is hereby instructed to speed up the aforementioned issue and report any progress to the prime minister by September 2015,” read the 27 Aug. cabinet minutes of the gateway project.
”Junta Readies ‘Great Firewall of Thailand’”, Khaosod English, September 24, 2015
Furthermore, Thai netizens recently discovered a related cabinet resolution from June 30, ordering the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to report what laws need to amended in order to realize a single gateway and report back by September 4.
Amidst these revelations, Thai authorities were forced to justify these plans and ultimately revealed the primary purpose of the gateway:
According to BBC Thai Service, Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom under the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and the vice president of the NBTC, on Thursday, 24 September 2015, admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.
(...) the CAT president added that national security is also one of the underlying reasons to the plan in order to make it easier for the state to crackdown on cyber crimes, saying that even the US has implemented such system.
”Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015
The NTBC vice president further defended in the same interview with BBC Thai the proposal, saying that it would actually ”increase” the competitiveness of Thailand’s IT sector against its neighbors, providing ”incentives” for private internet operators to log onto what it euphemistically calls a ”digital hub”, seeing itself as the center of Southeast Asia’s online connectivity.
From a business standpoint, it's doubtful how you could increase competitiveness by bottlenecking all of Thailand’s online traffic, effectively risking to cripple broadband speed, and also making state-owned CAT Telecom the sole monopolizing gatekeeper again, harkening back to the early days of Thailand’s internet connections.
Though, what dominates in the arguments by the authorities is the emphasis on ”national security”, the need to monitor internet content and to censor it when they feel it's necessary. While that mentality has often been expressed by several MICT officials under different governments (see here, here, here and here) in the past, this has become the leading doctrine in the Thai military government’s IT policy.
Under the military junta, the media are under its watch (especially online), it has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source) - and has ordered internet providers to censor on sight - and reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software - all that solely to go after Thais that are dissenting against the junta. Last week, the outspoken journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was detained by the military for a second 'attitude adjustment' reportedly for a critical Facebook post (shortly after his release, he has been forced out at The Nation newspaper). In August, a military court sentenced two Thai Facebook users to a record 30 and 28 years in prison respectively for allegedly insulting the monarchy online.
Furthermore, the Thai military government is in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at "preparing Thailand for the digital economy". But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertainty, benefitting the state more than Thai online users. The single internet gateway is very much in line with the Thai military government's hawkish policies, as it also wants to conquer the cyberspace as well.