Sweeping Censorship: New Computer crime laws would give government control of internet

Critics and experts have voiced concerns over the latest amendment to the Computer Crime Act because, if passed, it would allow the government to block any content they deem “inappropriate” without a court order.

At the same time, its more ambiguous sections have raised fears that the law may interpreted in myriad ways and possibly abused.  

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) held a forum yesterday to hear the public’s opinion on the amendment of the Computer Crime Act 2007, which will be considered by parliament next month. Across the city, a parallel panel was held by the Thai Netizen Group, iLaw, and SEAPA (Southeast Asian Press Alliance) as they watched the NLA’s broadcast and discussed the proposed new law.

The concept of a “single gateway” was heavily criticized earlier this year, and after mass unpopularity, was seemingly swept under the rug. Yesterday, the NLA introduced a new term to replace the single gateway. Their latest coinage, “one-stop service,” basically means that the government can speed up the process of censoring what we can see online.

Under the new Section 20, information that is considered by the ICT-appointed committee to be “a threat to public order” or “against good morals” must be deleted after a proper court order is obtained. However, in case of an emergency, the authorities may become a “one-stop service” to block and delete the content by any measures necessary without a court order.

So how does a committee of five people get to dictate what “good morals” are for an entire nation? That’s what social critic and writer Sarinee Achavanuntakul questioned at the NLA forum

“The problem is that this committee of five members is going to have the power to block any content they deem offensive or against “good morals,” even if the content is not illegal,” she said.

She added that the government would have absolute power, since there is no higher system to check and control the government. It is up to these five people to decide what affects “public security,” and it will threaten freedom of expression.

In addition, under the new Section 18 and 19, state officials would also have the power to gather user and traffic data from service providers, command that a person hand over computer devices and passwords, and seize any computer for “investigation.” In other words, they can request a court order to see the websites you’ve visited, knock on your door, demand that you give them your email and Facebook passwords and then take your computer away.


Right to erase history?

The new Section 16/1 rules that, if a piece of information is found to be false and causes damage to another person(s) or the public, the court can order the information to be removed from the web. However, Section 16/2 also commands that anyone who possesses the same information must also destroy it or be punished.

But the wide interpretation may also mean that you could be held responsible if you received a morally-offensive image or message and forgot that it was stored or “cached” in your computer.

Arthit Suriyawongkul of the Thai Netizen Network, voiced his concern about how Section 16/2 criminalizes anyone who possesses information that the court has ordered to be destroyed.

“If enforced widely, this will have a dire consequence on media and research,” said Arthit, who is concerned that the laws may be used to completely destroy research, facts and articles about controversial subjects.

“How do librarians, researchers, people working in the media or data fields know that the court has ruled the information to be destroyed and should that be their responsibility [to find out]?”

In the process of erasing your browser’s history, actual history may be erased.

Defamation and so much more

The original Section 14 has been extensively interpreted over the past few years. It criminalized importing forged computer data that is likely to cause damage to any third party, public or national security.

Human rights observers have condemned, or even become victims of, Section 14, which was used to silence critics by combining it with charges of defamation.

Despite being the most criticized section in the law, there has been no attempt to fix such misuse. Law lecturer Kanathip Thongrawewong said the problem with this section is its broad definition of “forged computer data” that has caused damage to another person. If you enter an online arguement and insult someone, they might interpret it as “causing damage” and try to charge you using this section.

Jomphol Pitaksantayothin, lecturer from Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Mahidol University, explained that it became a tool to harass critics or rivals by accusing them of defamation. This results in an overlap with actual defamation offenses under the Criminal Code and simply adds more penalties to those found guilty.

The confusing extent of what Section 14 covers causes uncertainty and self-censorship, severing freedom of speech, Kanathip added. He proposed that the law should be better clarified, for example, by specifying that it could only be used to charge people for fraud. Therefore, the section would no longer cover insults and defamation.

Not all is doomed

Some initiative changes were made too in the recent amendment. The drafting committee’s proud innovation is the new law that will tackle spam messages. Section 11 states that sending messages or emails in a manner that causes annoyance to the receiver is an offense.

Although it claimed to be more specific than former bills, Kanathip does not yet agree. The law lecturer pointed out that the definition of the offense is too broad, and it will be harder to enforce the law. The U.S. law, for example, specifies the frequency and quantity of the messages that could be considered as causing annoyance.

Where is freedom of speech?

Thitirat Thipsamritkul, law lecturer from Thammasat University, said that the new draft could have a chilling effect. People would be uncertain of what they could or could not do, resulting in serious self-censorship. The idea that the government would have even more power to block or delete information may discourage expression of opinion and free discussion, which Thailand needs in order to move forward.

“Wide possible interpretation of the law may also be used against rivals, and that can hinder the growth in the digital economy,” Sarinee said.

Netizens want security and privacy. With the proposed amendment, they cannot be sure of their security nor be convinced that the state itself has not invaded their personal information.

“The discussion on the amendment reflects the divided society,” an attendee, who asked Coconuts to withhold her name, said.

“One side is trying to create a more open society where we can freely discuss matters and listen to each other. Another side is convinced that tougher laws and controlled information are the answer, and dissidents must be eradicated. What we see here is that the lawmakers, the authorities, are listening only to the latter.”

“If the amendment is passed, we can forget about reconciliation. The authorities would gain more power, and those who want to crack down the dissidents have more tools to eradicate them. I wish Thais should learn by now that this is not how we overcome differences, they should learn to talk and listen instead of trying to defeat those who think differently,” she said.

The amendment will be considered in Parliament next month.

It is still a long battle for freedom of speech, especially with the authorities’ never ending attempt to control the internet.

“We should support free discussion and the checks-and-balances system [of the authorities]. It is a culture we must protect for the sake of the internet and free information,” Sarinee concluded.

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