Facebook to sue Thai government over demand to block anti-monarchy group

Facebook is preparing a lawsuit against the Thai government for demanding it block access to a private group critical of the monarchy.

Although the social media giant has for now complied with the demand to block the Royalist Marketplace group, a clearinghouse for satirical and critical commentary started by a Thai academic living abroad, it said it would take unspecified legal action.

“Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” a company spokesperson said in a statement sent to Coconuts Bangkok. “We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request.”

The message Facebook users in Thailand receive attempting to access the private group.

The group, which garnered more than 1 million members since it launched in April, became inaccessible last night in Thailand.

Although the company considers the content protected by international human rights laws Thailand is party to, it said it was “compelled to restrict access” to the group after discussions with the Digital Economy and Society Ministry fell apart. The government considers the group’s activities illegal and has threatened Facebook with criminal prosecution.

Such threats could affect Facebook’s workforce in the kingdom, where it opened marketing offices five years ago.

“Excessive government actions like this also undermine our ability to reliably invest in Thailand, including maintaining an office, safeguarding our employees, and directly supporting businesses that rely on Facebook,” it said.

Group founder Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fierce monarchy critic who’s lived in exile since 2014, had advance knowledge that Royalist Marketplace would become inaccessible. Announcing the news Monday afternoon, he encouraged its followers to migrate to another group.

The Kyoto-based exile said that he received a call from a Facebook employee in Singapore who told him that the decision could not be avoided and “refused to admit if this would further cultivate a norm of censorship in Thailand.”

“The government’s action is the crudest form of information censorship,” he continued. “It crushes the freedom of expression that we are all entitled to. By doing this, Facebook is cooperating with the authoritarian regime to obstruct democracy and cultivating authoritarianism in Thailand.”

Insulting the royal family remains a serious crime in Thailand punishable by up to 15 years per offense. Following a surge of cases in the final years of King Rama IX’s reign, it has been set aside in recent years by his successor, King Vajiralongkorn.

Any discussion about the role of the monarchy in society has been long taboo, but Thai authorities have broached the topic openly by responding to challenges issued by protesters calling for its reform.

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, encouraged Facebook to take action.

“Thailand’s government is again abusing its overbroad and rights-abusing laws to force Facebook to restrict content that is protected by the human right to free speech,” he said in a statement. “Make no mistake, it is Thailand that is breaking the law here—international law protecting freedom of expression. Facebook should fight the government’s demands in every forum it can, to protect Thai people’s human rights.”

Social media has long frustrated Thai authorities looking to rein in speech online. One week after the 2014 coup, the junta ordered Facebook blocked. The public erupted and service was restored after about 30 minutes. It then dispatched officers on a mission to win cooperation from Facebook, Google, Line and others in censoring content. Their overtures were roundly rejected.

Thai government legal demands and requests for user information surged in the second half of 2019, the most recent period for which Facebook provides information. The company supplied data in response 71% of the time.

Update: This story has been updated with additional details from Facebook.

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