Is Thailand’s ruling junta ordering the implementation of a China-style internet firewall? Maybe.
A proposal to unify all internet gateways in Thailand into one single entity has been approved in the cabinet meeting and earmarked as “urgent.”
A new attempt from the junta to gain control of the internet came to light in the media this week after the cabinet officially instructed Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to set up a single gateway on June 30. The issue has been discussed continuously in past cabinet meetings and the government is looking to issue laws to support the single gateway.
“The single gateway will be a tool to control inappropriate websites and the inbound of information and news from overseas to Thailand,” a report from the latest cabinet meeting last Thursday wrote. “The organizations must inspect the related laws. If there is a necessity to issue new laws, then they must proceed in order for ICT to urgently set up a single gateway.”
Setthapong Malisuwan, Deputy chairman of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) told BBC Thai that the move is to make it easier for the authorities to handle cybercrime, claiming other countries such as Singapore, USA and UK also have similar security measures.
“Instead of having many hubs, we will just have one. It will be easier to deal with [cybercrime].” he said. “This does not mean we would be monitoring [the internet] 24 hours a day. There will be a law that enables the National Council for Peace and Order to request for information. Right now they cannot do that because there is no law.”
But what does this mean to Thai netizens?
In May 2014, Facebook was down in Thailand for 30 minutes. Telecom company Telenor Group said a year later that the junta requested the company to block service to 10 million DTAC users in Thailand.
But with a single gateway the censoring of websites would be done a lot easier, giving the government the final authority to block websites instead of having to make ten calls to ten gateways.
“Last year when Facebook was blocked, it was a coordination between several organizations. If it was one single unit, the control would be done easier,” said Wason Liwlompaisan, Programmer and Co-Founder of Blognone, Thailand’s largest tech news website.
However, the firewall would not give the government direct access to personal information such as Facebook or Line messages
“If the gateway was invented for the purpose of eavesdropping, years ago, they may have succeeded. But now websites such as Facebook or Google have a secured protocol, so with the grip of the gateway, it is simply not enough to access your personal messages.”
Another expert explained that the gateway would enable the government to trap any information going through it. While most internet activities could be monitored easily, the password-protected activities such as Facebook and Line will still be safe.
“It’s impossible to do it [read personal messages] without looking suspicious to the service providers [Facebook or Line]. There are many ways to access the information, and one of those is the government has to request a master key from Line to translate their information going through the gateway. But in that case, Line has to cooperate,” said Dr. Kitt Tientanopajai, Director of Bureau of Information Technology, Khon Kaen University.
Last year the junta sought access to citizens’ Line chat groups to monitor illegal messages and claimed it could immediately inspect the conversations after their friend request is accepted. However, Line came out to deny it, saying no monitoring had been conducted.
Connect with speed
NBTC Deputy Chairman Setthapong said CAT, the state-owned and largest telecom in Thailand, will act as the single door to all internet gateways in Thailand when it’s ready.
Thailand currently ranks 32 among 55 countries when it comes to internet speed, not very in line with ICT’s dream to turn Thailand into the data hub of the region.
“If there was one single gateway in the future, there might be a risk for internet to become slower,” Wason said. “However, the slow internet may not happen if each provider upgrades their system to handle the flow. But do we believe that NBTC and CAT can provide fast internet? That depends.”
“If there was a firewall installed to filter what information can and cannot go through, the internet may be slower because the device available in the market is not efficient enough,” Dr. Kitt said.
Meanwhile, with one organization controlling the gateways, it might mean we would pay less for our monthly wifi bill if the gateways are united.
“There is a chance that we will be able to get service at a lower price because each telecom is renting their own gateways, but together they might get a lower price,” Kitt said.