Thailand’s parliament has unanimously approved the bill amending the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, raising fears that it will lead to greater censorship and an Internet crackdown.
The amended law was approved by a parliament whose members were appointed by the military, which grabbed power in a coup in May 2014.
Thailand’s government has argued in the past that revising the law is necessary to combat cyber crimes, but it dismissed the petition of human rights groups and the media sector to remove the law’s draconian provisions. The parliament unanimously passed the amendments despite the submission of an online petition with more than 370,000 signatures urging the government to consider the critique of various stakeholders about the proposed legislation.
The petition was initiated by the Thai Netizen Network, which identified several vague and problematic provisions of the bill. For instance, it warned that section 14 criminalizes the sending of “false computer data” or Internet content that damages “the maintenance of national security, public security, national economic security, or public infrastructure serving public interest or cause[s] panic in the public.”
In an editorial, The Bangkok Post raised some questions about this provision: “There is no clear definition of what acts may be construed as being in breach of this section. Will criticizing the government’s megaprojects qualify as damage to national security or public infrastructure? How about opinions about the state of the country’s economy?”
Meanwhile, section 15 could lead to self-censorship on the part of local Internet Service Providers because it penalizes all parties that “cooperate” in spreading “false computer data.” Local ISPs might decide to arbitrarily censor content rather than incur the unwanted attention of the bureaucracy. This section also allows officials to obtain Internet traffic data from ISPs without court approval. Some are worried that this could jack up the cost of operations to the detriment of both business owners and consumers.
Section 16 criminalizes the possession of information that the court has ordered to be destroyed. This could hamper the work of researchers and journalists. If a court decides that a particular content is dangerous and it is stored in the computer cache or Internet browsing history of ordinary netizens, will authorities use this as evidence of possession of “false computer information”?
Section 18 allows authorities to access encrypted data, endangering the privacy of individuals. Meanwhile, Section 20 empowers a committee appointed by the government to monitor and even order the removal of dangerous Internet content. This is a powerful committee whose mandate to police the Internet can be used to judge legitimate dissent as violation of the law. There is also no clear provision on how to make this committee accountable to the public.
Even if the law will not effect for 180 days, authorities have been aggressive already in blocking “harmful” Internet content in recent months, especially those deemed to be disrespectful to the monarchy. Thailand implements a strict lese majeste (anti-royal insult) law which some activists believe is being abused by the junta to harass and detain dissidents. According to the government, it shut down 1,370 websites in October for violating the lese majeste law. This is massive compared to the 1,237 websites removed by the government in the previous five years.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha defended the law by insisting that it will not violate civil liberties. Some businesses also welcomed the passage of the law, which they describe as an important regulatory measure to protect intellectual property rights and spur the development of the digital economy.
But protests were also organized a few days after the law was approved by the parliament. The online activist group Citizens Against Single Gateway claimed that it hacked several government websites.
Several international groups such as the United Nations Human Rights Office in Asia and the Committee to Protect Journalists also issued statements expressing concern about the passage of the law.
“Thailand’s cybercrime law was already a grave threat to journalists who work online. These vague and overbroad amendments will only accentuate the danger. Thailand’s military government consistently conflates commentary with criminal activity, and these amendments will give officials even wider powers to crush dissent,” said Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The new law could further derail the country’s normalization process since it is expected to boost the repressive powers of the military-backed government.