Junta backtracks on plans to bottleneck Thailand’s internet traffic through a single gateway after online backlash
Imagine this: you are being awarded for something you haven’t done but you go to the reception gala anyway because it’s too tempting to miss the limelight. That’s what happened last Tuesday in New York, when Thai military Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha - during his week at the United Nations' General Assembly - received the "ICTs in Sustainable Development Award" by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s IT and telecommunication agency.
Alongside nine other countries, the ITU awarded ”Thailand's ICT Policy Framework” as ”an exemplary model for the development of an effective telecommunications/ICT Regulatory environment,” according to a statement on the ITU website, listing off several ICT policies that have happened over the past 15 years under various governments - in other words, well before then-army chief Gen. Prayuth launched the military coup of May 22, 2014, toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The statement also highlighted the ”National ICT Master Plan”, a policy blueprint introduced in 2002 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck’s brother) that also saw the creation of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). It's that same MICT plus the current cabinet that made headlines for all the wrong reasons again in the past few weeks, as a proposal to control Thailand’s internet traffic by introducing a single gateway was made public.
The public response was unsurprisingly negative. Thailand's internet-savvy population feared not only even more online censorship and content filtering under military rule, but also a decrease in the speed and stability of Thailand’s internet infrastructure, since all traffic would be squeezed through said single gateway.
And in a rare display of civil disobedience and dissent against the military junta, internet users hit back on Wednesday evening:
To express dissent – and highlight the vulnerability of government systems – a community of online gamers opposed the government’s plan to police all internet traffic knocked offline websites of several state agencies, including the telecommunication ministry.
No sophisticated hacking seemed involved. Instead it was conducted using a simple yet reliable method to cripple targeted web servers. Activists circulated messages on Facebook last night urging supporters to mass-click and refresh the websites of specific government agencies at 10pm in what proved a successful bid to bring down services – a common method known as a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS.
“Today after 10pm, people who are united to oppose the single gateway system will launch a symbolic attack by method of DDoS, which is a symbolic method [of expression], since it is a method that everyone with a mobile phone and internet can do,” the post reads. “It is a demonstration of the power of the people.”
"Cyber Activists Bring Down Govt Sites to Protest ‘Single Gateway’", Khaosod English, October 1, 2015
During the night from Wednesday to Thursday, practically every website ending with a ”.go.th”-domain was targeted and at least seven government websites went offline amidst the constant barrage of mass refreshes, among them the MICT itself, the Ministry of Defense, the Government House, the military’s Internal Security Operations Command and the state-owned telecommunication companies TOT and CAT Telecom.
Thai government websites are comparatively easy targets, loaded with malware, generally unstable and using a form-over-function-approach to design (read: copious amounts to crude flash animations). The MICT website was reportedly accessed 100,000 times on Wednesday night alone compared to the daily average of 6,000 - the takedowns were a clear warning shot not to mess with a population that's not only very active online, but also seems to have better IT capabilities.
— Kaewmala (@Thai_Talk) October 1, 2015
Nevertheless, as the websites slowly came back online Thursday, officials were scrambling to control the damage, both virtually and publicity-wise. And this is where things got even muddier. Newly-appointed ICT minister Uttama Savanayana reiterated that the single gateway is still just an idea at this point and the government will ”never restrict or interfere” with the internet access and freedom of its citizens. Furthermore he called the public to stop calling the proposal ”single gateway”, despite the fact that that word showed up several times in the original cabinet orders.
Apart from Uttama, other officials cited more, often contradictory reasons for the Thai military government to look into a ”single gateway”. The whole range goes from...
...”filtering and blocking unwanted content”...
The plan to reduce internet gateways was initially proposed by Pol Gen Somyos Pumpanmuang, the chief of the Royal Thai Police, in June 2015. He reasoned that through a single gateway system, it will be much easier for the state authorities to monitor, filter, delete, and intercept information on the internet that could be deemed inappropriate.
”Thai authorities to step up surveillance via ‘single internet gateway’”, Prachatai English, September 23, 2015
...to ”improving IT business”...
(…) Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom (…) and the vice president of the NBTC (…) admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.
The general, however, said that the primary purpose is actually increase the competitiveness of the IT sector in Thailand (…)
”Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015
...to "saving costs"...
ICT Minister Uttama Savanayaya told reporters that it was a misunderstanding that the project was about national security; rather he said it was purely an economic measure simply to reduce Internet access costs and ISPs could use the single gateway or not as they choose. It would also free up ISPs from security costs as the government would take care of IT security on their behalf.
”Thai ICT minister defends single gateway initiative”, TelecomAsia, September 25, 2015
...”anticipating cyber threats”...
[PM's Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana] said the measure was being studied because the government anticipated several types of cyber threats, including hacking of government's websites and spreading of rumors and false information to discredit various institutions.
”Suwaphan says govt studies single Internet gateway to prevent cyber threats”, The Nation, October 1, 2015
...and finally to ”won’t somebody please think about the children?!”
"The prime minister is worried about children and young people who use technologies and the internet without an appropriate framework or scope, and he has asked related agencies to come up with measures," he said.
”ICT minister vows to 'never curb rights’”, Bangkok Post, October 1, 2015
No matter what the reasons are and even if the officials eventually get their stories straight, the Thai military government seemingly has underestimated the public's response to the single gateway plans. However, this won't stop the junta's efforts to monitor, filter and censor any online content it sees as a threat to its narrative. As highlighted last week, this is not the only measure or proposal concerning IT policies and the biggest of them all, the Cyber Law bills, are not yet even passed.
As the United Nations have declared unrestricted access to the internet and freedom of expression online a human right in a 2011 resolution, the Thai military government is already running afoul of this principle and would do so even more if it actually realizes all of its proposals.
h/t to several readers