Thailand, Google and Censorship

A new report argues Google is particularly accommodating over Thai censorship requests. Why?

As reported in Siam Voices this week, Google has released its 2012 Transparency Report, which chronicles requests that Google receives, mostly from governments, to block material online. As Lisa Gardner notes on Siam Voices, “Google bucked international trends in 2011 by blocking access to hundreds of web pages at the behest of the Thai Ministry of Information, Communication, and Technology [MICT].” One part of the report shows that Google has restricted or partly restricted at least 149 YouTube videos that the Thai government claimed was insulting to the monarchy. Unlike in many other countries, where Google supposedly makes its decisions to take down material after a local court issues an order (not that courts are infallible, but at least there is a court order), in Thailand it took down material even without court orders being issued, simply at the request of the authorities.

Overall, around the world last year, Google complied with about 54 percent of requests by governments and copyright holders to take down material. But in Thailand, Gardner reports, Google “chose to comply with each request made by Thai government censors” – in essence, 100 percent of their requests, which is a chilling number.

Gardner identifies a number of clear, pressing problems with Google’s approach, and these problems are only going to be magnified as Thailand’s political conflict, already at the boiling point, gets hotter, or if a coup is launched by the military, not an impossible proposition now.

For one, although Google claims that it only removes material if the requests to remove are relatively narrow, in Thailand the application of the lèse-majesté law and the Computer Crimes Act has become broader and broader each year, and now is so broadly defined – some would say undefined – as to be almost impossible to understand. (Scholar David Streckfuss, the authority on lèse-majesté, has shown how over the past decade Lèse-Majesté cases have skyrocketed, reaching a number rarely seen in any monarchy in history, other than in late nineteenth century Germany.)

Since the Thai courts aren’t helping to clarify the law – they basically almost never acquit anyone for Lèse-Majesté or violating the Computer Crimes Act, and reduce sentences only when there is major international pressure, as in the case of the editor of Prachatai – how will Google, or any other company, know which Thai requests are narrow enough to act on? Or whether any requests are actually narrow enough to act on? And since the law is increasingly used as a political weapon – by royalists against liberals as well as against pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, and in reverse by some pro-Thaksin allies against royalists – how can Google be sure that it isn’t essentially serving as part of either side’s arsenal, or that, if it is going to take down material, it is balancing both sides in the Thai political struggle?

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In many countries, such as China, Google has stood out in making a strong case for free expression online, and using its corporate power to support that approach. And it does have employees in Thailand, as it did in China, which it needs to be protective of. Still, Google’s actions are concerning. The company hasn’t yet explained what material MICT tried to block, according to Gardner’s report. More importantly, Google hasn’t shown any clear position on how it determines which online material in Thailand, where the lèse-majesté and Computer Crimes Act have become two of the biggest weapons against free expression, it considers worthy of being taken down. The company should enunciate a clear position, helping Thai (and foreign) users understand its rationale, and drawing a firmer line in the sand for MICT.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick.