ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Is Facebook Finally Standing up for Free Speech in Southeast Asia?

Facebook is pushing back against the Thai government’s censorship requests. Is this a new normal — or an exception to the government-friendly rule?

David Hutt
Is Facebook Finally Standing up for Free Speech in Southeast Asia?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Veluben

Are Facebook and Thailand’s military government on a warpath? Not quite, but neither are in each other’s good books these days. Ostensibly, this rift centers on the “Royalist Marketplace,” a Facebook group that boasted more than a million members and was run by the noted analyst Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who is based in Japan, as well as the Facebook page of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a former lecturer who lives in self-exile in France. Both are reportedly wanted by the Thai authorities for lese majeste charges.

On August 24, Facebook finally blocked access to the Royalist Marketplace group, which contains honest and often critical comments about the country’s monarchy, after the Thai government had threatened legal action against the social network giant if it continued to refuse to do so. Buddhipongse Punnakanta, Thailand’s digital economy and society minister, said earlier this month that Facebook was breaking the country’s draconian computer crimes act if it kept the group open.

Rather simply, Pavin set up another similarly named group just hours before access to his first one was blocked by Facebook, attracting half a million followers by day’s end. He has said that new groups would pop up as soon as old ones were blocked. Yet, the following day, Facebook said it would consider legal action against the Thai government, including a request to a local court for the order to block access to the site to be revoked.

All this comes amid months-long protests in Thailand, mainly led by youth and students, that have severely tested the taboo of speaking openly about the monarch. Protesters have been vehement in their opposition to the military government, also beleaguered by the COVID-19-induced economic crisis, with the economy expected to contract by at least 5 percent this year, one of the region’s worst forecasts, according to the World Bank. (I would recommend this recent Washington Post op-ed about Facebook and the protests.)

A Facebook statement said that requests, like blocking access to the aforementioned group, “are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves.” It complained that it felt “compelled” to block the Royalist Marketplace group.

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Whether or not such a lawsuit is possible (or just Facebook signalling its disgust at now having to play the part of a military government’s censor) is questionable. The case would probably drag on in the court system. Pavin was critical that Facebook gave into the government’s demands in the first place. “By accepting the requests, whether you like it or not, you become part of that, you become a part of the support that you gave to the authoritarian” governments, he has said.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, head of Thailand’s military-cum-civilian government, responded predictably. “All actions against offending [Facebook] pages comply with Thai law,” he said. “I do not use any dictatorial power that I no longer have to close them. These actions are based on court orders. We confirm that we are acting in accordance with Thai law.”

Where to begin with such a comment? The easiest criticism is to point out that said Thai laws, notably the Computer Crimes Act, afford any leader almost dictatorial powers to choose what speech is acceptable and what is not. Another might be to say that Prayut no longer needs the dictatorial power he once wielded, especially after his 2014 coup, because of the draconian laws he has forced onto the books.

More interesting were the comments from his deputy prime minister, Don Pramudwinai, also Thailand’s foreign minister. “Whatever violates Thai law is not right. Whenever there is wrongdoing in Thailand, we seek cooperation from Facebook Thailand, and it always cooperates,” he said. But, in a laconic aside, he noted that “Freedom under international laws is another matter.”

True, and this strikes at the heart of the matter for Facebook. Ought Facebook to act as an international corporation and remain loyal to international laws, such as those that protect free speech, or even the laws of its homeland, particularly the First Amendment? Or do only its local subsidiaries matter, meaning that the social network must abide by the laws of every individual country in which it operates, however draconian those regulations are?

This is not a straight-forward question. Indeed, there are good reasons to argue that Facebook should be compelled by national laws, especially when it comes to paying taxes (a major concern of European states, many of whom accuse the social network of paying next to nothing) or anti-trust measures, as there’s a valid argument it wields too much influence without abiding by the same rules as similar content providers.

Such debates are somewhat easier in the West, where free speech isn’t as roughed up as in countries like Thailand. Yet, Southeast Asia’s autocrats noted this difficulty with Facebook early on. In 2017, Vietnam’s communist government made clear that Facebook had to move servers to the country and abide by its highly repressive laws if it was to continue operations in Vietnam. If not, Hanoi warned, it would respond by restricting access to the site and organizing a boycott of advertising on Facebook, a major concern for the social network that has grown increasingly reliant on revenue from ads and sees Southeast Asia as a growing market for this.

Here, one ought to feel some sympathy (or, at least, understanding) for the social network giant. I have argued repeatedly (at length in this free lengthy essay) that if Facebook is pushed further down the path of censorship, even by people who want it to suppress content with good intentions, Facebook will simply treat censorship as a first-at-hand response, regardless of context – and context matters, given we are discussing national laws.

In recent years, it has been battered from every side eager for it to censor content they deem problematic. We’ve seen liberals and even journalists call for Facebook to censor anti-Rohingya posts and pages in Myanmar, which many say play a big part in the genocide against this Muslim minority. In Indonesia and Malaysia, we’ve seen religionists call on Facebook to censor “blasphemy” and pro-LGBT posts, while at the same time atheists, LGBT activists, and other progressives have argued for Facebook to censor hate speech directed toward them.

Of course, one may say that it’s correct for Facebook to censor racist “hate speech” in Myanmar but not anti-government commentary in Thailand or Vietnam. Fair enough (and this would be the social network abiding by international norms), yet reality becomes more difficult when context is factored in. After all, Facebook cannot employ enough staff to make up an informed opinion about every taboo or sensitive topic in every country it operates. How on earth, for instance, would it come to a conclusion on whether yuon is an acceptable Khmer word for “Vietnamese people” or a racist epithet, a debate that has lingered in the public sphere for decades? Or, indeed, whether it’s fine to write posts critical of the Thai’s monarchy enormous wealth and corruption network but not about other more lurid details involving the King? As always when it comes to free speech, one is compelled to be zero-sum; either almost everything is acceptable or eventually nothing is.

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On the face of it, this latest dispute with Thailand appears to show that Facebook does, in fact, have a red line that it won’t cross – or, at least, won’t cross willingly and quietly. But the landscape ahead is marked by an almost infinite number of potential red lines, and Facebook cannot possibly deal with each. If it is to be censorious sometimes, and not at other times (and to sometimes abide by international norms and sometimes domestic laws), then it must answer a million questions about taste, decency, and tolerance that public spheres haven’t answered for decades.

And, of course, remember this is a for-profit company. Whether Facebook actually wants to protect free speech, as its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly claims, is now in question. But its profit motive isn’t. And just as many people living under authoritarian governments learn to live a quiet life and mind their own business, the temptation for Facebook to do the same is overwhelming – much to the detriment of those of us who believe in free speech.