Thai Internet Freedom Threatened by Junta's New Bill, NGO Warns

Thai junta chairman and PM Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, 22 Jan 2015.

BANGKOK – The director of an internet freedom advocacy group in Thailand has warned that the military junta's Cyber Security bill could spell the end of internet privacy for Thais.

If passed, the Cyber Security Act would allow Thai authorities to access any private information on computer systems without obtaining a court warrant. 

"We are not saying that the state can't have the power to deal with online crimes that have been increasing in the present time," said Arthit Suriyawongkul, who leads the Thai Netizen Network. "But too much power will lead to a violation of privacy."

His comment came one day after junta chairman and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha pledged to push forward with a draft of the bill, which would grant state authorities sweeping power to monitor the internet in the name of safeguarding "national cyber security."

Arthit, a veteran activist who campaigns for internet freedom in Thailand, raised concerns that the broad power authorized by the Cyber Security Act would be effectively unchecked. As it stands now, there are no requirements for officials to apply for search warrants, or punishments in place for officials whose actions cause damages.

Although the military government described the act as a legislation promoting the "digital economy," Arthit said the bill looks more like a weapon of surveillance wielded by national security agencies. 

Arthit said the Thai Netizen network and five other NGO groups will submit a formal letter of protest against the Cyber Security Act to the junta-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) next week. 

A draft of the Cyber Security Act, which is available on the Thai Cabinet’s website, authorizes officials to "access any channel of information and communication, including mails, telegrams, telephones, fax, computer, or any other type of electronic and telecommunication equipment" deemed necessary by the authorities.

The bill states that officials can exercise those powers per orders from the National Cyber Security Council (NCSC), which will be formed by the Cabinet. 

The draft of the bill also authorizes the council to "summon any state agency or individual to give testimony or submit any document beneficial to the operation of this Act," and to "request" any state or private agency to "perform any task" to protect national cyber security as decided by the council.

The draft was approved by the Cabinet on 6 January, and is now awaiting a vote by the National Legislative Assembly, a body appointed by the junta last year.

When a reporter raised concerns about the bill's potential violation of privacy to Gen. Prayuth on Tuesday, the Prime Minister angrily replied, "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 repeated his intention to pass the law in a speech at Centara Grand Hotel in Bangkok yesterday. "They don't talk about the good things in this bill," he complained, "I am not spying on you. I am not violating your privacy."

He also argued that more stringent internet laws are needed to combat lese majeste (insulting the monarchy), because many websites that allow criticism of the Thai monarchy are based in foreign countries, beyond the authority of the Thai government.

"We can't shut them down. Foreigners don't have the same laws that we do," Gen. Prayuth explained. "So why don't we make our country peaceful and safe? Our country is not like their countries. Thai people are not like farangs [Thai slang for Westerners]. We eat rice. They eat bread. It's totally different."

Thailand already has two draconian pieces of legislation used by authorities to restrict freedom of expression on the internet: the lese majeste law, which criminalizes any criticism of the monarchy, and the Computer Crime Act.

The Computer Crime Act, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a 100,000 baht fine, outlaws any use of a computer system that affects "national security," "spreads false information," or damages the "good morality of the people."  

Human rights organizations say that freedom of expression has dropped sharply since the Thai military seized power on 22 May 2014. Gen. Prayuth, who was appointed Prime Minister by a legislature whose members he handpicked, has banned protests and public criticism of his regime, intimidated the media, and ordered hundreds of activists to be briefly detained in military camps for "attitude readjustment."

 

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